Mobile provider Three was the first to offer 3G services nearly 20 years ago, but has now announced it will end 3G by the end of 2024. The network’s focus will shift to improving 4G and 5G services.
The number of people using 5G handsets quadrupled in 2021, and Three claims 5G usage on its network has increased by 358% in the past year. Three has purchased the largest amount of the 5G data spectrum of any provider, and intends to improve 5G users’ experience with over £2 billion of investment.
Three is not the only provider with upcoming plans to phase out 3G and 2G – Vodafone and EE will also be dropping them as early as next year.
Research by Three found that 5G usage has already exceeded 3G usage, and the shift is unlikely to slow down. The network predicts that, by the end of 2022, 5G usage will account for 35% of all data usage.
The closure of Three’s 3G services is significant, as it currently covers 99% of the UK outdoor population with its combined 3G and 4G network, and carries 28% of mobile data traffic in the country.
David Hennessy, Chief Technology Officer at Three UK said: ‘3G kick-started the mobile revolution – and launched Three into the UK 20 years ago - but the future is undoubtedly 5G. As we continue to roll out our ultrafast connectivity, by not only upgrading our existing 4G sites but building new 5G sites, we’ll be in a position to switch off our use of 3G across our network by the end of 2024.’
In 2021, the government made an agreement with mobile network operators Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three that 3G and 2G mobile services will be phased out by 2033. However, the providers are free to choose when they end 3G and 2G services, within this timeframe.
Vodafone has already said it'll be closing 3G services in 2023, but has no current plans to close 2G before the 2033 deadline.
EE will also phase out 3G services in 2023, and will close 2G services 'later in the decade'.
O2 has not specifically announced when it will close down 3G and 2G services, or whether it'll be before the agreed date of 2033. As it stands, this is the only provider that will offer the service after next year, and may be the last port of call for some.
Demand for data is continually increasing, and that demand is now for 5G data, rather than 3G. To help meet this higher demand, other parts of the data spectrum need to be reused, so something had to give.
Additionally, there is an increased cost to simultaneously operating the two types of network required to support 2G/3G and 4G/5G services, which is encouraging providers to end 2G and 3G. The money saved from these closures can then be invested in making improvements to the 4G and 5G network.
Three expects the trend of customers using 3G-only handsets to continue to decline, as faster 4G and 5G devices are introduced to the market.
If you have an older phone, your options are to upgrade the device to one that supports 4G and 5G, or buy a Sim for a network that still supports 3G when it's cut off by your current provider. The safest option as it stands would be O2.
Three is offering to help customers with older 3G-only devices stay connected, so contacting your provider should be your first step if you have any concerns about 3G services being discontinued.
While it might be tempting to think that investing in 5G is a necessity to future-proof your next phone, 4G isn't likely to disappear any time soon, with estimates suggesting it'll be around for a good decade or longer.
That said, 5G functionality is no longer reserved for flagship phones – mid-range and even cheap models are including this as standard, so there's no harm in bearing it in mind for your next purchase. You can browse all our , where prices start from under £200.
To use 5G, you'll also need a 5G Sim, and to be in an area that has a 5G signal. Similarly, 5G Sims are becoming more readily available at no extra charge, though in some cases you may need to pay a bit extra. Either way, a 5G phone prepares you for a 5G Sim if and when you decide you need it.