The great switch: From 2G to 5G


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I recently got into a conversation with an expat friend from a neighboring country who posited that a possible reason for the spotty mobile connection we have in the country could be the fact that we still have active 2G and 3G networks. He was saying that, because of this, we are not able to fully benefit from the full power and the efficiency of our 4G and 5G networks.

The Philippines started its foray into mobile telephony in the early '90s using the 2G network platform. It started a revolution that significantly changed the way Filipinos looked at the telephone as a means of communication. 

By May 2000, the number of cellular subscribers exceeded the number of fixed-line subscribers in the country. By that time, Filipinos were mostly communicating with each other using short message services or SMS which eventually made the Philippines the texting capital of the world. Those iconic red phone booths and phones-for-hire in sari-sari stores have also disappeared. It was basically the changing of the guards as far as communications technology in the country is concerned.

2G and 3G are legacy mobile network technologies that are gradually being phased out in favor of newer, more advanced technologies like 4G and 5G. The Philippines is actually one of the few countries in the world that still has a significant number of 2G and 3G users.

Fast forward to today, we see that many countries have shut down their 2G networks and are even planning the eventual shutdown of their 3G networks, the successor of 2G. While 2G and 3G networks have served us well, the transition to more efficient technologies has become essential for meeting the growing demands of a highly connected society. These two technologies are decades old and carriers need to make room for better solutions like 4G and 5G because there is only so much spectrum to go around.

Let us explore the status of 2G and 3G shutdowns in our region. Japan phased out 2G support in early 2011. In the case of Singapore and Taiwan, 2G support is no longer available since 2017. Brunei did it in 2021. In the case of Malaysia, they phased out 3G early last year. Other countries are also now taking steps to sunset their 2G and 3G networks.

Legacy networks use up valuable but scarce spectrum resources that could be used instead to deploy newer, more efficient technologies like 4G and 5G which offer much faster speeds and lower latency which would benefit all Filipinos, especially those in rural areas.

Shutting down 2G and 3G would also allow mobile operators to focus their resources, especially support engineers, on maintaining and expanding their 4G and 5G networks to improve network efficiency and performance. It would likewise reduce the environmental impact of the mobile industry because operating and maintaining multiple mobile networks requires a lot of energy. Keeping four sets of skills and the logistics needed to maintain four networks would be too expensive for them. Savings can then be passed on to their customers through lower prices or better services. 

However, the impact of shutting down the two legacy networks in the Philippines can be a major challenge. While 2G and 3G usage has declined significantly, some users, mostly in remote areas, still rely on them due to affordability or device limitations. The country is one of the few countries in the world that still has a significant number of users relying on older phones or devices that only support 2G and 3G networks and encouraging them to upgrade their devices can be an issue.

We also have to consider that only major cities in the country have robust 4G/5G coverage and rural areas may still rely heavily on 2G/3G networks. Unless backward compatibility is made available, it will be very difficult for them to move to newer technologies. This could be a financial burden for some users, especially those in low-income households. And even worsens the digital divide in the country as it would make it more difficult for people in low-income households and rural areas to access mobile services. Certain services today, like telecare facilities and payment terminals still rely on 2G or 3G connectivity. Transitioning these services to newer networks without disruption is critical.

Shutting down 2G and 3G networks is a complex issue but, a necessary step in order to deploy newer, more advanced technologies like 4G and 5G. The government and the carriers would need to invest in programs to help users upgrade their devices,  support businesses that still rely on 2G and 3G networks, and expand 4G and 5G coverage nationwide. Also, decommissioning older networks may result in reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions but managing e-waste from retired devices is essential for sustainability.
A transition plan must ensure no one is left behind and address environmental concerns.  ([email protected])

(The author is an executive member of the National Innovation Council, lead convenor of the Alliance for Technology Innovators for the Nation (ATIN), vice president of the Analytics and AI Association of the Philippines, and vice president, UP System Information Technology Foundation.)