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Malaysia to switch off 3G by 2021: Here are 6 things you need to know

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has announced plans to shut down 3G networks in Malaysia by the end of 2021. This is part of the newly announced JENDELA initiative that aims to upgrade Malaysia’s digital communications infrastructure in preparation for 5G rollout.

So what does this all mean? What would happen to older devices when 3G networks are phased out? Here’s what you need to know.

Why do we need to shut down 3G?

According to Muhyiddin, the plan to turn off 3G networks in stages is to improve 4G networks which will serve as a strong foundation for 5G. Older technologies are typically inefficient and they don’t provide the speed and capacity as newer technologies.

Spectrum is a finite resource and optimisation is vital to support our future connectivity needs. One good example is the recent switch from analogue to digital TV. The move helps to free up the 700MHz spectrum that can be used for 5G wireless connectivity.

Apart from providing better image quality, digital TV also offers a more efficient use of spectrum. The spectrum required for 1 analogue TV channel can be used to broadcast 10 TV channels in digital format.

Using 2100MHz for 4G?

In Malaysia, most telcos are currently using the 900MHz and 2100MHz bands for 3G. The lower 900MHz band was first introduced for early 2G GSM networks and several telcos have repurposed them for 3G and 4G use. Although it has less capacity compared to higher frequency bands, the 900MHz spectrum is still sought after as it provides wider coverage and it penetrates walls better.

Malaysia 2G, 3G, 4G Spectrum MCMC
Source: MCMC

As shown from the spectrum chart above, there’s a significant chunk of 2100MHz spectrum that are assigned to Celcom, Digi, Maxis and U Mobile for 3G. With the 3G shutdown, the 2100MHz spectrum could potentially be used to improve 4G coverage and capacity.

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So what happens to 2G?

When the announcement was made yesterday, there was no mention of 2G. If we compare with other countries in the region such as Australia, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, most of them started transitioning by shutting down 2G first, followed by 3G. Australia targets to completely shutdown 3G by 2024 while Singapore targets after 2025.

2G 3G Shutdown in Asia Pacific
Source: GSMA

Although it looks logical to shut down 2G first, it isn’t usual for 3G networks to retire before 2G. It appears that Malaysia is following the European approach as several operators including Vodafone have started shutting down 3G while they retain its 2G networks.

The move to keep 2G in Europe is due to a significant number of applications that rely on 2G such as M2M and early IoT devices. This could include payment terminals, security systems and other GSM-based solutions. By maintaining 2G, it would give businesses and industries more time to switch to newer LTE-M and NB-IoT based applications.

Maintaining 2G would also ensure that users of feature phones would not be left out. Although there are more smartphone users these days, there’s still a significant number of users that use feature phones for basic voice calls and SMS.

According to the latest MCMC Hand Phone Survey published in 2019, 25.9% of Malaysians are still using feature phones. More than half of those in the age group of 50 years old and above have yet to switch to smartphones.

Source: MCMC

According to the survey, 76.2% of feature phone users are reluctant to switch. The top reason for not switching is that their feature phone serves their needs, followed by the cost of smartphones

Source: MCMC

Do note that the survey was conducted with 2,401 individuals in 2018 and there might be a significant shift to smartphones in the past year due to eWallet adoption.

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4G coverage needs to expand quickly

With the goal of switching off 3G by the end of 2021, this leaves telcos slightly more than a year to quickly expand its 4G network to fill the coverage gap. In Phase 1 of the JENDELA plan, the government aims to increase 4G coverage from 91.8% to 96.9% in populated areas. For the second phase, the government aims to erect over 400 new towers in East Malaysia and upgrade close to 2,000 transmitters on existing towers.

The transition would also depend on the respective telco’s subscriber base. There are still subscribers that rely on 3G for data connectivity and this includes Veveonah from Pitas, Sabah that had to climb a tree to get good mobile reception.

Opensignal 4G availability in rural areas
Source: Opensignal

As highlighted by Opensignal’s report, Malaysians in sparsely populated areas can hardly get 4G connectivity. In areas with less than 100 people per square KM, 4G availability is less than 75%. Even if you factor 3G and 4G together, the least populated areas with less than 10 people per sq KM are only covered 72.9% of the time.

All telcos must enable VoLTE

Maxis VoLTE 4G

The top telcos in Malaysia are still relying on 3G for voice call services. Celcom and Maxis, which are the first two telcos to roll out 4G are still not offering VoLTE extensively. Maxis says they aim to offer VoLTE by this year while Celcom currently offers VoLTE on selected iPhone models.

4G VoLTE

The least affected would be Yes 4G as YTL Communications operate a pure IP-based 4G network since day one. They were the first to offer VoLTE in Malaysia in 2016. U Mobile, Digi and Unifi Mobile also offers VoLTE on 4G.

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It is also worth pointing out that not all 4G phones are VoLTE ready and this situation could cause some confusion among consumers. Once 3G is shut down, a device without VoLTE would have to fall back to 2G just to make phone calls, and this would greatly affect data connectivity.

Malaysia needs a clear transition plan

The move to switch off 3G in Malaysia by end of 2021 is an ambitious one but there needs to be a clear transition plan. For starters, consumers as well as enterprises must be educated about what devices are compatible.

Similar to Singapore, Malaysia could impose a ban on sales of non-compatible devices. This would ensure that all new phones sold can still work beyond 2021. This is necessary as some manufacturers are still introducing 2G phones in 2020.

For those who are still relucted to switch to smartphones, there are also 4G feature phones with VoLTE such as the Nokia 2720 Flip, Nokia 3310 4G and the Nokia 8110 4G. Each telco would know how many subscribers are still not on 4G and they can do a push to migrate them over.

In terms of network, telcos must be given clear targets to increase its 4G coverage. Even today, there are still urban areas especially indoors that have poor or no 4G signal which needs to be addressed. A similar target must also be given to telcos to enable VoLTE which will improve overall voice call quality nationwide. Telcos could work together to share networks to avoid duplication, speed up deployment and to reduce cost.

What do you think of the 3G shutdown situation? Let us know in the comments below.

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Alexander Wong