America’s second largest carrier by subscriber numbers, AT&T, is planning to start decommissioning its legacy 2G cellular network before the end of the first quarter 2017. AT&T’s Chief Strategy Officer, John Donovan, explained that the carrier is preparing to shut down the network using a staged, gradual process. Currently, approximately half of its network is under what Donovan calls a “soft lock.” This means that the 2G network is effectively suspended in a quickly reversible state whereby should the carrier discover that a critical service (typically, medical devices) still needs a connection via its 2G network, it will be able to quickly reactivate the service. AT&T is planning on extending the soft lock over the remaining 2G network across the country in the next four to six weeks. Should it need to reactivate the 2G network, the company will be able to activate this on a market by market basis but all being well, it is planning to start decommissioning the network infrastructure one month after applying the soft lock. This conceivably means that some of AT&T’s 2G GPRS and EDGE network masts could be being dismantled by early March 2017.
AT&T’s plans to decommission its old 2G network have been well reported over the last few years: AT&T first announced the plan to shut down the 2G network on or around January 1st 2017 back in August 2012, and the company has worked hard in the last four years to ensure that both the regulator and customers are aware of the change. This has also included working with customers in order to migrate them to newer devices supporting its 3G or LTE networks. Donovan confirmed that no customers have so far complained that they were unaware of AT&T’s plans to shut down its 2G services but was careful not to comment on any of the side effects from AT&T shutting down its 2G network - such as how many customers have moved to a different service provider, although he explained that the company will be providing further information when it announces its fourth quarter results on January 25th. Some of AT&T’s competitors have been using the shutdown of the old network as a means of encouraging customers to jump carrier, such as T-Mobile US offering free SIM cards for AT&T 2G IoT devices.
The reason why AT&T is first disabling and then shutting down its 2G network is so that it can “refarm” this spectrum and reuse it for either 3G or LTE networks, which are far more efficient at utilizing spectrum. A 3G mast, and especially a LTE mast, are far more capable at handling more customers and at significantly faster connection speeds compared with 2G masts. Donovan explained that in the last four years, many customers have upgraded from their old 2G equipment to devices supporting AT&T’s newer network technologies. We should have a better picture of how many customers have moved carriers in three weeks.