AT&T Mobility recently revealed that it was eyeing 2017 as the "shuttering" date for its 2G network. Quick sum: only five years away! So what happens to M2M customers who may be counting on their 2G embedded devices operating for a good bit longer than that? I.D. Scales reports.
The need to "sunset" old networks and free up the spectrum so that it may be "refarmed" to LTE to feed the insatiable demand for bandwidth in markets like the US is pressing.
While AT&T has pointed out that only a few human customers are likely to be left hanging off the 2G network by that time (and that ways can be found to move them happily up to another technology) it's being less revealing about what it plans to do for M2M customers.
It's probably thinking hard about that: as will may other operators who face similar "refarming" demands as their need for spectrum (and their desire to get rid of 'uneconomic' small-scale 2G networks with - in the main - low-value customers camped out on them) becomes more pressing.
But M2M customers, who bought into 2G (often embedded modules) on the basis that a reliable network would be around to handle the applications well into the future, may be less sanguine. It's not that they will be left high and dry, but they may be put to extra trouble and expense (and service disruption) as and when the changes come.
And, of course, budding M2M deployers considering 2G modules for their low cost and global coverage are bound to be wondering about the likely time-scales their provider will see fit to grant them.
The problem is not a new one.
"The industry recognised about 2 years ago that there was a real problem with 2G embedded devices," says spectrum expert Stefan Zehie, CEO of Coleago.
"They will be very difficult to get rid of."
Stefan says operators know they are sailing into a world of pain because of they way the technologies and spectrum bands are both diversifying.
"Moving away from a harmonized world in 3G to a technologically diverse market with LTE is going to create all sorts of problems as operators look to refarm spectrum," he points out. "The number of band combinations required on a single device just keeps going up," he says, and that all adds pressure on operators to try and rationalise the technologies. That may mean an early bath for 2G and a headache for some M2M application owners.
The way things are shaping up, says Stefan, it's possible that some operators may end up running as many as "three technologies in one band if they're not careful."
That would be highly inefficient and ponderous. So how will they cope?
"One way forward is for operators to swap spectrum to get hold of bigger chunks of contiguous spectrum - overall bigger chunks are also more efficient," says Stefan.
Also, he says, some operators will need to subsidise legacy users of 2G and even 3G out of the band - although even this approach may not work so well when users are on pay-as-you-go and operators have effectively lost contact with the handset.
Another way of alleviating the difficulties may be through regulatory changes - encouraging one operator to load the legacy users of a competitor its own network so that, in the case of 2G sunsetting, a skeleton service for M2M and other users could be maintained on a feasible sliver of spectrum.
"There is no one size fits all solution," says Stefan. "Rather it all depends on how much spectrum an operator has. The refarming pressure is less where there is lots of spectrum."
M2M users might be wise to start asking their operator about its 2G sunsetting plans.
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