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The End is Nigh

by Philip Kendall | Feb 03, 2010

Softbank Japan will be switching off its 2G mobile network next month, one of the first WCDMA operators in the world to do so. In its financial results on Tuesday it said this would result in a small correction in subscriber numbers, though the revenue impact will be minimal - in Q4 2009, 3.6% of its customers were still on the 2G network, but they contributed just 1.7% of revenues. More importantly, terminating the 2G network is going to contribute to profit growth, so it’s all good news. For Softbank, that is. That’s just over eight years to move from launching a 3G network to closing down the 2G network. Unfortunately, no other operator is going to be running on those timelines, even NTT DoCoMo is going to see 10 years lapse between its 3G launch and 2G closure (down for March 2011).
  • Many operators in developed economies are now 6-7 years into their 3G lives and nowhere near the subscriber/revenue ratios seen in Japan in that timescale – most have yet to even get 40% of their subscribers onto 3G.
We spend a large amount of time in our forecast models looking at adoption curves for new technologies, predicting an inflection point for LTE is the latest to tax us. I have just run a speed test on my HTC Hero and (with the wind blowing in the right direction) I am getting 3Mbps down and almost 1Mbps up on a 7.2Mbps HSPA network. It’s hard to sit here today and decide at what point in the future I am going to find that performance completely unacceptable. New technologies are fun, but what is equally interesting for us is looking at the other end of the technology life cycle:
  • How should mobile operators manage the retirement of legacy technologies as they transition from 2G to 3G, or from circuit to packet voice?
  • At what point is it worth investing more in 3G subsidies for 2G users in order to save money by shutting down the old network?
The analogue to digital switch-over involved migrating a peak of 93 million analogue connections and even that has taken well over a decade to complete – this time around, there will be 4 billion 2G connections to migrate. While Softbank looks forward to lower network operating costs from April, very few other operators will reach that point even by 2015. We see huge promise in LTE and other mobile broadband technologies attracting users away from 2G services, but as vendors fight it out to have the fastest 4G demo at MWC this year it will be interesting to see how much space is devoted to technology co-existence. As regulators move towards technology-agnostic spectrum licensing, there will be a real skill in managing resources across 2G, 3G and 4G technologies and great opportunities for vendors to help operators make the transition away from 2G as painless as possible. Phil Kendall
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