As many as 17% of Americans at the end of last year were still on 3G, according to a recent report by the GSMA, the global wireless industry's primary trade association. However, a new report from Opensignal indicates that most of those 3G users can be moved onto 4G without much effort.
The firm reported that the vast majority of today's 3G users in the US already own a 4G phone. Roughly 96% of Americans who connect to 3G have a 4G-capable device, Opensignal said. Those users either don't live in a place with 4G coverage (13%), or they're still on an old 3G rate plan from their carrier (83%).
"This indicates that if U.S. carriers market compelling 4G rate plans, they can transition the vast majority of 3G-only users and accelerate their 5G deployment strategies," Opensignal wrote in its new report on the issue. The firm obtains its data through apps on users' phones.
The Opensignal data is important because Verizon has said it intends to shutter its 3G network at the end of 2020. Likewise, AT&T has said that it plans to sunset its 3G network in early 2022. T-Mobile and Sprint haven't said when they might shut down their respective 3G networks, likely because they are in the middle of defending a proposed a merger and are waiting for that deal to close.
Wireless network operators routinely shut down aging networks and replace them with newer ones, mainly as a way to more efficiently use their spectrum holdings. For example, AT&T discontinued service on its 2G wireless network Jan. 1, 2017. And Sprint too recently shuttered its WiMAX network.
But such shutdowns create challenges for carriers to retain customers through the transition process. After all, no one wants to wake up one morning with a phone that can no longer connect to a network because the network itself is gone.
Since most of today's 3G users will be able to upgrade to 4G without purchasing a new device, that could signal a smooth shutdown process for 3G networks. IoT devices and IoT users are another matter entirely -- the replacement cycle for, let's say, a connected water meter is much different than a consumer cellphone.
The bottom line: A 3G network shutdown could spell relief to operators keen to reuse their 3G spectrum for 4G, or even 5G.