By Stephane Teral, Principal Analyst, Infonetics Research

US-based operator AT&T set the timeline for decommissioning its 2G network in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week.

It said it is planning to shut down its 2G network by 2017, which according to planning teams is the average time it now takes to complete such difficult work.

Although this announcement generated a lot of buzz, AT&T is not the first large service provider to undertake this process; Japan has been leading the charge for some time.

NTT DoCoMo, for example, shut down its 2G network last year – 10 years after it launched the first 3G W-CDMA network.

As of 31 July 2012, according to Japan’s Telecommunications Carrier Association, the country had 130.9 million mobile subscribers.

Ninety three percent of them are on 3G, while three percent (4.3 million) are on LTE.

Interestingly, four percent (4.7 million) remain on 2G via the Personal Handy-phone system (PHS) and the number of subscribers is growing at an average 0.4 percent each month.

This remaining 2G service was operated by the WILLCOM Group, which was acquired by Softbank in 2010.

Since then, Softbank has been keeping the slow-growing service alive and using the cell sites to aggressively build a TDD LTE network.

Europe seems to be following Japan’s timetable, rather than AT&T’s.

The major European mobile operators are busy with large scale “refresh” projects aimed at bringing their mobile networks up to speed by removing obsolete 2G base stations and replacing them with multi-standard ones that support all the “Gs”.

In other words, European operators are not shutting down 2G networks anytime soon.

The process of decommissioning a legacy network has to be carefully planned and orchestrated with the whole ecosystem, from mobile infrastructure equipment to devices and chipsets.

Precipitated decommissioning of 2G, for example, could have a dramatic impact on M2M, which everyone is keen to avoid.

AT&T has admitted that it has yet to determine its execution strategy, but it will be aware that there is a major and fundamental difference between Japan and the US – a Japanese operator has, on average, three times more base stations than a large US operator.

Further, a wireless license in the US does not stipulate that the operator has to cover a certain amount of the nation’s population by a certain date.

Consequently, operators deploy patchy networks in areas where return on investment is greater, and leaves less lucrative markets behind.

Not surprisingly, therefore, AT&T said it intends to transition away from 2G on a market-by-market basis, starting first with the market that has the highest 3G penetration.

In most other places in the world, base stations have to be deployed everywhere to meet a license’s coverage requirements.

The countdown to large-scale 2G decommissioning has started, but remains unchartered territory for virtually everyone except the Japanese.

AT&T and rivals elsewhere ought to craft their plans sooner rather than later.

Photo © JaM - Fotolia.com

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