Australia’s 3G shutdown: get the facts and upgrade now

Killing off the country’s oldest and slowest mobile networks to make way for more 4G and super-fast 5G, Australia’s 3G shutdown has the potential to leave some smartphone owners in the lurch.

All three of Australia’s major mobile network providers will have shut down their ageing 3G mobile networks by the end of 2024. Vodafone/TPG was the first cab off the rank, switching off its 3G services in December 2023. Optus is set to follow in September 2024, while Telstra recently extended its 3G closure deadline to 31 August 2024.

Australia got its first taste of 3G back in 2003, launched by Hutchison (which later merged with Vodafone) under the brand “3”. Telstra and Vodafone launched their 3G services in 2005, followed by Optus in 2006.

After Australia’s 2G switch-off was completed in 2018, the writing was on the wall for 3G. In 2019, Telstra was the first network provider to announce a shutdown date for its 3G mobile network.

Today, all three Australian telcos are retiring their 3G networks so they can reallocate that mobile spectrum. For example, Telstra’s 850 MHz spectrum which is currently used for the 3G network, and before that 2G CDMA, will be repurposed to expand the 5G network.

What is the impact of Australia’s 3G shutdown?

While they provide faster data speeds, newer mobile technologies typically struggle to match the reach of their predecessors.

With the high take up of 4G and 5G-capable devices, relatively few Australians still rely on 3G networks. Those who will be impacted by Australia’s 3G shutdown will tend to be people in remote areas that newer, faster mobile network technologies struggle to reach.

Back in 2019, Telstra committed to upgrading and expanding its 4G coverage to a “materially equivalent size and reach” to its 3G footprint. At the time, 0.3 per cent of the population had 3G-only coverage.

As part of this, Telstra and networking giant Ericsson announced a world-first in doubling the range of a 4G LTE tower to 200 kilometres.

In the last few years, Australia’s telcos have also turned to satellite to extend their regional coverage, such as Telstra’s deal with Starlink and Optus’ deal with SpaceX. Meanwhile, the ACCC shot down the proposed network-sharing deal between Telstra and TPG which would have improved regional coverage.

Which handsets are affected?

All handsets purchased in Australia in the last few years should be 4G compatible. For example, Telstra began selling 4G-capable handsets when the network launched in 2005. It had stopped selling 3G-only post-paid handsets by 2019, and then stopped selling 3G-only prepaid devices in March 2020. 

Even so, all together, mobile operators suggest up to 740,000 handsets could be impacted by Australia’s 3G shutdown.

Affected 3G-only devices include the iPhone 3G, 3GS, 4 and 4S, with Apple launching its first 4G-capable phone in 2012 in the iPhone 5. The same year, Samsung launched the Galaxy S III 4G.

Unfortunately, some early 4G-capable devices lacked an important feature called VoLTE emergency calling, and therefore still made calls over 3G. This means, that while they may be able to access 4G data after the 3G shutdown, they will be unable to make voice calls. 

Affected devices include Apple’s iPhone 5, 5C and 5S, Samsung’s Galaxy S5, S6, S6 Edge, Note 4 and J1 Mini, Google’s Pixel 2 XL and OPPO’s A57, F1s and F5 Youth.

To further complicate the issue, support for VoLTE on some handsets can vary between network operators. There is also a subset of 4G handsets that use 4G for both voice and data but are configured by the manufacturer to use 3G for Triple Zero calls – meaning owners may not realise until they are caught out in an emergency.

In addition to mobile phones, there are plenty of other devices that may rely on 3G connectivity and will be impacted by the shutdown, according to the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association. These could include security systems, medical alarms, EFTPOS machines and even cars.

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