Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly elderly and living in rural areas, will be forced to upgrade their mobile phones by the end of 2023, as Vodafone sets a deadline to switch off its aging 3G network the next year with the promise that “no one will be left behind”.
Vodafone, which has around 18 million mobile customers in the UK, is to decommission the nearly two-decade-old network as usage declines to focus on using freed-up spectrum to expand its 4G and 5G networks.
However, the company, which is due to phase out 3G on the same schedule as EE owner BT, admits there are hundreds of thousands of customers who have stuck with their 3G-only phones, especially older owners. who were not encouraged to join. the smartphone revolution.
Additionally, parts of the UK, including parts of Cornwall, rural Scotland and North Norfolk, still only have 3G coverage, in total around 2.2% of the UK. although there is voice call capability in these areas through a 2G signal.
“We are starting to communicate to customers about this today,” said Ahmed Essam, chief executive of Vodafone UK. “Our goal is for everyone to stay connected, and we will do everything we can to ensure that is the case.”
Vodafone, which is launching an awareness campaign to ensure no customer is left in the equivalent of digital darkness when the 3G signal goes down next year, estimates that more than 2 million people are still using 3G handsets on all UK mobile networks. networks.
The company intends to encourage young, tech-savvy smartphone users to “check in” with family and friends to see if they need to upgrade their phones.
“There are people who are not confident with technology,” Essam said. “We want to make sure everyone gets the help they need, so no one is left behind.”
A year-long communications campaign includes partnering with organizations such as the Good Things Foundation, which aims to achieve digital inclusion across all socio-economic groups, with a partner announcement specifically focused on more demographics. seniors expected in the coming weeks.
“With the abandonment of 3G, people risk being disconnected, sidelined and left behind,” said Helen Milner, group chief executive at the Good Things Foundation.
Vodafone, which launched its 3G network in the UK in November 2004, said that today less than 4% of the data used by customers passes through the network. As recently as 2016, the 3G network carried 30% of data.
“3G has connected so many customers over the past 17 years, but the future is 4G and 5G,” Essam said.
Vodafone, which has already turned off 3G networks in Germany and Italy, said that in the long term shutting down 3G will benefit the environment as it is built with what is now considered inefficient equipment, with 5G networks 10 times more efficient.
Last summer BT became the first operator to announce it would phase out its 3G network in a phased approach with full shutdown completed by the end of next year.
The other two major UK mobile operators, Three and Virgin Media O2, have not announced plans to switch off their 3G services. Three UK’s parent company, Hutchison, paid £4.4 billion for the UK’s first 3G license in 2000 and launched the first network in March 2003.