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Turning off 2G in China harder than it looks

Turning off legacy networks isn't as easy as it seems, even in China, with its gargantuan 5G buildout.

Despite years of effort and repeated government instructions, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom are struggling to turn off their aging 2G and 3G networks and migrate customers to 4G or 5G because of the sheer number of consumers and Internet of Things (IoT) devices they support.

China Unicom's experience is typical. At the annual result announcement in March last year, then-chairman Wang Xiaochu said the company would finish its 2G network closure by the end of 2021.

That hasn't happened – not for Unicom or its rivals.

There is no chance operators will turn off aging networks while they still support a significant number of customers, many of them China's poorest and most vulnerable.
 (Source: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)
There is no chance operators will turn off aging networks while they still support a significant number of customers, many of them China's poorest and most vulnerable.
(Source: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)

According to Communication World, a publication linked to China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the three operators maintained a total of 2.64 million 2G and 3G basestations at the end of 2021.

The main reasons for turning the basestations off are cost and efficiency: The networks are underutilized, generate little revenue, and require continued maintenance and fuel expense. They also occupy scarce spectrum real estate that could be refarmed for 5G.

Additionally, the aging legacy networks are energy inefficient and drag on the telcos' low-carbon aspirations and ESG (environmental, social and governance) metrics.

Different approaches

The three Chinese telcos have slightly different approaches. Besides Unicom's efforts in shuttering 2G, China Mobile is trying to sunset its TD-SCDMA network, which has never been very popular, and keep its giant GSM network. China Telecom is aiming to close down both 2G and 3G by around 2025.

It's hard to get a precise handle on it, though. Neither the government nor the telcos disclose 2G or 3G subscriber numbers, most likely because it would indicate a failure to meet the targets set in China's 14th Five-Year Plan.

In May 2020 MIIT figures showed an estimated 273 million 2G subs, 17% of the total. Of these, around 90% were China Mobile users, a result of its deep rural network. Another 30 million were 3G customers.

The vast majority of the 2G users are either elderly, children or rural residents with no 4G network coverage. Since 2018 the telcos have been offering 4G packages aimed at these users, but the numbers of 2G subs are stubbornly large because of the cost of a new device, unfamiliarity with smartphones, or lack of 4G or 5G availability.

New 2G and 3G devices are still being shipped, with 12 models hitting the market this year. Reportedly, 4.2 million were sold in 2021 and 8.7 million in 2020.


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Another problem beyond the tens of millions of customers is the need to support tens of millions of IoT devices. The issue again is a lack of network coverage for NB-IoT or LTE Cat 1, as well as the cost of Cat 1 modules, which is still higher than 2G/3G modules.

There is no chance operators will turn off these aging networks while they still support a significant number of customers, many of them China's poorest and most vulnerable. The reality is that the 2G/3G era in China still has years to run.

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— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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