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How the water industry can prepare for the phase out of 2G/3G cellular communications

About the blog

Antony Lane
Field technician support, Westermo.

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  • How the water industry can prepare for the phase out of 2G3G cellular communications

Cellular communication has been used widely in industries such as water and waste water treatment to connect to systems and equipment located remotely. Water companies were early adopters of 2G and the subsequent rollout of 3G and 4G provided increased data rates, lower latency and greater network availability. The success of third and fourth generation cellular networks has paved the way for 5G, with much speculation as to how it will be adopted within industrial applications.

With widespread adoption of 4G and the growing availability of 5G products and services around the world, older technologies (2G and 3G) are now slowly being turned off. For example, in Australia, Vodafone shut off its 2G GSM services back in 2018 to enable greater availability of the 3G/4G network and Telstra is now proposing the 3G network be shut down by 2024 to make room for 5G. In South Korea, the countrywide 2G shut-off began in 2020 and in many other countries, such as the UK, there is speculation and uncertainty as to when networks will be shut off. The radio spectrum is highly regulated. With small portions of frequencies sold for vast sums of money to mobile network operators (MNO), careful planning for future cellular technology is necessary to ensure equipment can supply demand.

The shutdown of most 2G and 3G services, known as the `2G/3G sunset’, is widely expected to take place by the end of the decade. This means that over the next few years businesses will need to consider migrating to a newer cellular network and update their systems accordingly. For many, that will be 4G, which is already one of the most widely available and cost-effective global cellular network services. In 2019, more than 50% of mobile connections used globally were 4G, but despite this coverage is still not 100%. Further investment in the 4G network is required, especially in rural areas. Here are some recommendations to help prepare your organisation for the ensuing 2G/3G sunset.

Check with your mobile network operator

There is a lot of unclear and indefinite information concerning when and which services will be turned off, and this may result in decisions to purchase products or technologies being made in haste.

For the public switched telephone network (PSTN) switch-off in the UK, BT (an internet service provider) provided an official press release, supported by Ofcom, outlining that PSTNs will be switched off by 2025. To date, there has been no official announcement from UK MNOs about a 2G/3G switch-off, which was seen in countries such as Australia for the 2G switch-off in 2018. Within the UK media there has been much speculation and conflicting information about the 2G and 3G shut-off, with suggestion that this may take place in the next few years. A shutdown is going to happen, but the question is when.

Over the next few years, businesses will need to consider migrating to a newer cellular network and update their systems accordingly

Germany switched off its ISDN network in 2018 to create the way for an all IP network. To ensure that users still had access to ‘analogue lines’, boxes on the street supplied an IP backbone to the ISP, with the last meters kept as a connection for existing telephones. This has enabled customers to prepare for a ‘switch-off’ and migrate to a fixed line replacement (ADSL/VDSL). For companies to be prepared for the 2G/3G sunset, MNOs will surely need to advise a timeline to enable their customers to prepare.

Due to limitations of the 2G network, most installations use either serial communications or to a lesser extent, IP communications. Despite 3G communications offering greater functionality, there are some suggestions that 3G networks may be disabled before 2G. The reason for this may be due to the tremendous success of 2G, which is still considered critical to infrastructure.

Understanding the impact of a 2G and 3G shutdown on your system

The migration to 4G-enabled devices has its benefits. 4G-enabled devices usually support all cellular technologies, including 2G and 3G, due to the cellular chipset being built into the device. This means that if a 2G-only device is replaced by a 4G-enabled device it can use those additional services should 4G not be available in the area. That allows standardisation of networking equipment, while using multiple cellular networks.

If legacy equipment is still fit for purpose, but the supporting communications network is moving to an IP-based system, there may be an option to just upgrade the data communications equipment. Most industrial cellular devices include a serial interface as well as Ethernet, which means only part of the overall system is replaced, helping to make considerable cost savings.

Understanding the technology

4G, frequently referred to as long-term evolution (LTE), has far exceeded the expectations that 3G failed to live up to. It has provided a perfect environment for immediate access and high-speed connectivity to the internet for social media, entertainment and better accessibility to remote sites. The strength and success of 4G are due to the broad use of the radio spectrum. The 800MHz range provides a much larger coverage area than 3G, helping to reach remote areas, like 2G achieved, but with much greater data rates. When combined with the use of 2.3GHz and 2.6GHz frequencies, this also increased bandwidth in denser areas, such as towns and cities.

4G will provide those migrating from 2G and 3G with a replacement service for the next decade, with 4G and 5G expected to coexist

However, a network connection is only as fast as the slowest link. If the cellular chip in a device does not meet certain requirements, despite over the air availability, data rates and performance plummet. Weaker cellular chips can also affect the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) and the reference signal received power (RSRQ), both of which impact quality and performance.

Next generation technology

Despite the promise of 5G, 4G will provide those migrating from 2G and 3G with a replacement service for the next decade, with 4G and 5G expected to coexist, as the other services have done for many years.

The potential of 5G is huge. In the UK, 5G is utilising part of the radio spectrum that was previously used to deliver TV broadcasts, as well as using the 3.4GHz and 3.8GHz range to provide coverage similar to 4G in the cities. It is worth noting, however, that because some parts of 5G uses higher frequencies, additional cell towers will be required to ensure optimum coverage. It took many years for 4G to offer great coverage in many countries, with the initial focus on cities before a countrywide rollout took place.

5G is not the only new cellular network available. In some European countries, private LTE networks, such as LTE450 and LTE-M450 are available, which utilise parts of the radio spectrum to provide 4G data rates on lower frequencies. Industrial devices using these services are being used to connect remote technology in applications such as substations.

Are you prepared for a switch-off?

The transition from 2G and 3G to the next generation of cellular networks is not going to happen overnight and MNOs have a responsibility to inform their customers when these services will be shut off. The ‘digital switchover’ in the UK, where analogue TV signals were switched off and replaced by digital signals, started in 2005 and was completed in 2012. This featured a huge marketing campaign and local investment to enable this transition to be as smooth as possible.

Migration to a new communications technology will create capital and projects costs in the short term, but the possibility to gather more data than ever before, and then do more with it, will help to drive profitability in the long term. Current and next generation services, such as 4G and 5G, pave the way for high speed and low latency networks that are perfect for Industrial IoT, M2M and real-time data collection. The mass deployment of 4G worldwide has provided businesses with significant opportunities to improve performance and 5G will expand those opportunities even further.

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