Wednesday, 23 March 2022

FAQ for international travellers about the 2G and 3G cellphone "sunset"

Cellphone and mobile data network operators around the world are discontinuing service on the frequencies and using the protocols they have been using for the last twenty years. Ten billion or more cellphones and other devices, on which consumers have spent perhaps a trillion U.S. dollars, won’t work for voice calls any more. Most of these devices will no longer work for cellular data either.

Whether this is a good deal or a bad deal, it’s a done deal.

The so-called “sunset” of 2G and 3G cellular voice and data service renders much of my previous advice about cellphones and smartphones for world travel obsolete.

Here’s an update about what you need to know.

In this article — part 1 of a 2-part series — I’ll answer questions about the 2G and 3G sunset:

  1. What is the ‘2G and 3G sunset’?
  2. Do I need to pay any attention to the 2G and 3G sunset, or can I ignore all of this?
  3. What’s the status and timeline for the 2G and 3G sunset?
  4. What does this mean for world travellers?
  5. Do I need a new cellphone or smartphone? Will I need one if I travel internationally?
  6. If I’m checking the specifications of my current cellphone or smartphone, or shopping for a new phone, what should I look for to be sure that it will still work, worldwide, after the 2G and 3G sunset?
  7. What if I like my simple flip phone or ‘candy bar’ phone? Do I have to get a smartphone?
  8. How much will I have to spend for new 4G VoLTE phone?
  9. Do I need a 5G phone? Will I need one soon?

In part 2 of this series, I’ll look at what travellers can do with some of the ‘obsolete’ cellphones and smartphones that will no longer be usable for voice calls over 4G and 5G networks.

1. What is the 2G and 3G sunset?

Cellular carriers in the USA and around the world are shutting down their 2G (“second generation”) and 3G (“third generation”) digital wireless voice and data networks. New 4G and 5G services are being offered on different frequencies and using different transmission and connection protocols. Older cellphones and smartphones won’t work on the new frequencies or with the new protocols.

Cellular wireless network operators have no reason to care if they wipe out much of the value of cellphones, smartphones, and other devices that have already been sold and that consumers, not the network operators, have invested in and now own. Because all of the network operators are making the change at more or less the same time, you can’t just switch to a competing operator that still provides 2G and/or 3G service. The U.S. government (specifically, the FCC), like other governments around the world, has gone along with this change by approving reallocations of frequency spectrum and transfers of licenses to use that spectrum.

The best historical analogy to this that I can think of is the transition from analog to digital television broadcasting in the USA in 2008-2009. TV stations stopped broadcasting on the frequencies and using the protocols they had used for more than fifty years, rendering all existing broadcast television receivers useless unless they were connected to a cable or satellite TV service or a new digital TV receiver and converter box. But with cellphones and smartphones, there’s no converter box option — even if you would be willing to pay for it — as there was for analog televisions.

2. Do I need to pay any attention to the 2G and 3G sunset, or can I ignore all of this?

If you have a smartphone made in around 2019 or more recently, and maybe if you have a phone slightly older than that, and if that’s the only mobile device you ever use, you might be able to ignore all of this and keep using your current smartphone, worldwide, for another ten years or until you replace your phone. But even if you have a new smartphone you can keep using, you might want to pick up one of the slightly older ones that have now been rendered “obsolete”, to use as a secondary device for travel.

Note that all of the references in this FAQ to ages and dates of manufacture of devices are approximate. Not all devices made in the same year have the same features or support the same frequencies or protocols. Some older devices still work, and some newer devices may not.

If you have an older cellphone, smartphone, or other device (maybe a device embedded in your car’s navigation and infotainment system, or in a wearable medical alert device that an elderly relative uses), that device may stop working entirely at any time, possibly without warning and at an inconvenient moment, or may start having (or may already have started having) unexplained problems.

The 2G and 3G sunset is already here. Unless you bought a new cellphone in 2020 or after, you ignore the 2G and 3G sunset at your peril — especially if you travel internationally.

3. What’s the status and timeline for the 2G and 3G sunset?

It’s already happening. In some places, it’s already happened.

In the USA, the 2G and 3G sunset began in 2021 but will mostly happen during 2022. There may be delays for various reasons, especially to allow time to replace medical alert devices and other alarm systems that have embedded cellular transceivers. But it’s a matter of exactly when and where, not whether, 2G and 3G service will be ended.

As of now, all major wireless network operators in the USA plan to shut down all of their remaining 2G and 3G cell sites by the end of 2022. 2G and 3G service has already been shut down by some carriers and in some countries, and is planned in more countries in the next few years.

Because 2G networks are used by some critical embedded devices such as wearable medical alarms, some countries may keep (some) older 2G services active even after phasing out newer 3G networks. But both 2G and 3G are eventually going away.

4. What does this mean for world travellers?

You can no longer count on finding 2G or 3G service everywhere you travel. 2G and 3G service may be available for a few more years in parts of the global South where network operators fear that they would lose too many customers if they had to buy new cellphones. In the global North, however, I expect that within a few years — and in some countries already today — the only cellphone or wireless data service available to ordinary consumers or travellers will be 4G or 5G.

An older device that continues to work with your carrier in the USA, and that used to work in other countries, may no longer work abroad. It may be difficult or impossible to say for sure, until you arrive, whether or where an older device will still work — and where it won’t. And if anything happens to your phone, and you need to replace it while travelling, you’ll need to know what to look for. A phone that you buy locally, that still works just fine in a country where 2G and/or 3G service is still available, may not work when you get home, or in other places where there is no more 2G or 3G service.

All of this is equally true regardless of whether you are travelling from the USA to other countries, to the USA from other countries, or between other countries.

5. Do I need a new cellphone or smartphone? Will I need one if I travel internationally?

Yes, if your current phone doesn’t support VoLTE and the right 4G LTE bands.

6. If I’m checking the specifications of my current cellphone or smartphone, or shopping for a new phone, what should I look for to be sure that it will still work, worldwide, after the 2G and 3G sunset?

Check the specifications of your phone or the one you are thinking of buying, paying close attention to the exact version number. Phones sold under the same brand name and model number by different carriers or in different countries may support different protocols and bands, and may even user different processor chips! Some may keep working after the 2G and 3G sunset, while others won’t.

Especially if you plan to travel internationally, you should make sure that you have a cellphone or smartphone that:

  • Supports 4G LTE (“Long Term Evolution”), which is a category of frequency bands and transmission protocols.
  • Supports VoLTE (“Voice over LTE”). VoLTE will be essential for voice calling in places where 2G and 3G service have been discontinued. You won’t be able to make voice calls at all after the 2G and 3G sunset without VoLTE. Some phones, especially those introduced during the transition to LTE in, very roughly, around 2013-2015, may support LTE data but not VoLTE. Calls might be routed to these devices, and they might ring, but you will have no voice connection when you answer. (This was happening to me for a while in 2021, on T-Mobile in the USA, before I figured out why.) Frequency band support has to be provided by hardware, and can’t be changed. If your phone, as manufactured, didn’t support the 4G LTE bands you want to use in the countries to which you travel, it never will. But VoLTE is a software function. So some phone manufacturers have released firmware updates to add VoLTE support to phones originally released without VoLTE.
  • Supports as many of the 4G LTE bands as possible, including whichever LTE bands are most used in whichever countries you think you are most likely to travel to. The newer the phone, the more LTE bands it is likely to support. There are many LTE bands, with different ones being used in different countries, or by different carriers in the same country. In the USA, for example, T-Mobile got permission to use some frequencies formerly used for UHF television broadcasts (before the analog-to-digital TV transition mentioned above) for 4G LTE service. But these frequencies, referred to as LTE Band 71, are used for LTE service in few countries other than the USA. Many phones sold in other countries don’t support LTE Band 71. Unlike a quad-band GSM (2G) phone that would work anywhere in the world, no readily-available consumer device works on all of the LTE bands in use in different countries around the world. Changes or additions to which LTE bands are used in which places could limit the use of any mobile device you buy today in ways that are impossible to predict. This is one of the strongest reasons not to invest a lot of money in a smartphone. Get the cheapest device that will meet your needs.
  • Is unlocked. You might want to change carriers someday, or use a local SIM card while travelling. 4G LTE international roaming agreements are not yet as extensive as 2G and 3G roaming agreements had become, so it’s more likely than it used to be that you will need to get a local SIM card in order to have cellular service outside your home country. The price different to get an unlocked rather than a carrier-locked smartphone is typically small compared to the potential benefit, especially if you travel internationally.

Additional smartphone features to look for that are especially valuable for world travellers, but that aren’t essential, include the following:

  • The ability to install LineageOS or one of its variants in place of the “stock” version of Android that’s bundled with always-on bloatware from Google and the device manufacturer. On the same device, a version of Android without all of this bloatware running all the time will have much better battery life, more memory available for your own uses (offline maps, photos, videos, e-books, etc.), and use up less of your high-speed cellular data allocation phoning home to Google (or to Apple, in the case of an iPhone). In addition, more recent versions of Android than those available from device manufacturers are available for many older devices as builds of one or another variant of LineageOS. Smartphone manufacturers have little recent to provide operating system updates for older devices. The older the Android device, the more likely it is that the most up-to-date and best-performing OS version available for that device is some version of LineageOS. (No updates for iPhones are typically available from any source once Apple stops providing them.)
  • An expansion memory card slot. Offline maps are the killer smartphone app for travellers, but can take up a lot of storage space. You are more likely to be able to fit maps of large regions on your device, and have space for everything else you want to store on your device, if it has a memory card card slot than if you are limited to internal memory. You’ll have enough space in internal memory be able to fit maps of a substantial area on almost any late-model smartphone. But if you often have to delete one map to make room for another when you travel, rather than having space on your device for offline maps of e.g. all of the USA and Canada, or all of Europe, sooner or later you will arrive someplace without having downloaded the right maps in advance.
  • As large a battery as possible. Battery life is likely to be more important when you are travelling in unfamiliar places and using your device more than usual for navigation.

7. What if I like my simple flip phone or “candy bar” phone? Do I have to get a smartphone?

No. There are 4G VoLTE flip phones and “candy bar” phones that look almost identical to the 2G and 3G phones they replace (but that have better voice call quality).

8. How much will I have to spend for a new 4G VoLTE phone?

Maybe nothing: Some cellular carriers in the USA including AT&T and Tracfone are giving current customers free replacement phones — not because the law in the USA requires carriers to do so, but to discourage customers from thinking about switching carriers, as they might do if they had to get new phones. AT&T has been offering a free low-end Android smartphone. Tracfone has been offering a choice of a bottom-end Android phone or a pretty good flip phone. These offers haven’t always been well advertised or easy to find on carriers’ Web sites. If you can’t find an offer like this on your cellular carrier’s Web site, call them and probe carefully. You may be offered a free replacement phone as a “customer accommodation” gesture only if you threaten to switch to another carrier.

If you have to buy a replacement phone, second-hand smartphones offer dramatically better value than new ones. Many people trade in or replace their cellphones every year or two — even more frequently than their cars! There are literally billions of functional smartphones in the world that are new enough to support VoLTE on many 4G LTE bands, but old enough to be available second-hand for a fraction of the price of new smartphones with comparable features and specifications.

You have many choices, and the best deals, both for new and used cellphones and smartphones, will change over time.

In early 2022, for example, I bought a Samsung S10e, which was introduced almost exactly three years ago in 2019 as a smaller-sized (which I like) but almost full-featured variant of Samsung’s “flagship” smartphone at that time. Three years later, it still has features and specifications that match or exceed all but the most expensive new smartphones. It was originally released with Android 9, but it’s still supported by Samsung. In early 2022 it received an official upgrade to the latest version of Android, Android 12. It sold for US$600 when new. At the upper end of prices for used smartphones in guaranteed top condition, I got a “refurbished” unlocked S10e with no visible cracks, scratches, damage, or defects for about $250 including a 1-year warranty from Backmarket.com. Other marketplaces for used smartphones include eBay.com (which offers its own warranty on some but not all “refurbished” phones) and Mercari.com. A used smartphone can have hidden defects, so look for at least a 7-day free return policy from the seller or platform. I could have paid about the same amount for a reliable but quite basic new smartphone. Either would support VoLTE and many 4G LTE bands, but I think I got the better deal.

You probably won’t find a smartphone with good coverage of 4G LTE bands, new or in decent used condition, for much less than US$150.

If you don’t want a smartphone, you can get an unlocked 4G VoLTE flip phone (such as a Nokia 2720 or Alcatel GO) or “candy bar” phone (such as a Nokia 6300) for less than US$50.

9. Do I need a 5G phone? Will I need one soon?

No. Not now, not soon, probably not until at least 2030, and maybe never.

5G networks are being used in conjunction with 4G networks to provide greater data transmission capacity with lower latency (less lag) — not to provide service in places that don’t also have 4G coverage.

Right now, any 5G connection is initiated over 4G and and controlled by a parallel 4G connection. So a 5G phone won’t give you a signal anywhere that you don’t also have 4G service. Even the most ambitious wireless network operators don’t expect to introduce and switch enough users and devices to “standalone” 5G to shut down 4G service for many years.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll look at what travellers can do with some of the “obsolete” cellphones and smartphones that will no longer be usable, after the 2G and 3G sunset, for voice calls over 4G and 5G networks. There’s a particularly good case for repurposing one of these older devices as a cheap, expendable secondary device that you can use in crowded and public places while travelling — for navigation, as a music player, as an e-reader, and with sightseeing, museum, and audio tour apps downloaded over wi-fi — without risking the loss or theft of a valuable device or even more valuable personal information. Read more.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 23 March 2022, 07:04 ( 7:04 AM)
Comments

A very informative article about the changes to frequency spectrums, but, as is quite naturally the case, it is focused on the needs of US-based travelers.

What about non-US travelers who are traveling to the US? Can the typical 4G/5G handsets used elsewhere around the world be successfully used in the majority of mainland-USA (& Canada, for that matter), or are there geographic limitations that need to be considered by a visitor to your shores?

Posted by: Stu, 23 March 2022, 21:29 ( 9:29 PM)

@Stu - As I noted in this article, the 2G and 3G sunset is happening around the world, not just in the USA, with different dates in each country and for each wireless network operator.

The same 4G VoLTE devices will work in the USA and Canada as in the rest of the world, as long as (1) your device supports the correct LTE bands -- which, as I noted, vary from country to country and network operator to network operators -- and (2) the operator or reseller from whom you got your SIM card has a 4G roaming agreement with a local operator on one of the bands your device supports, or you have an unlocked device and get a SIM from a US carrier.

Nothing I said in this article applies exclusively to the USA, except for prices (which of course vary from country to country, even for used devices, due to import duties and other factors) and the discussion of LTE Band 71, which is as much an issue for visitors to the USA as for people who live in the USA.

As I noted, many devices sold elsewhere in the world don't support LTE Band 71, since it is used little (if at all) outside the USA.

This will be an issue only if your SIM has roaming in the USA only with T-Mobile USA, or you buy a local SIM from T-Mobile USA. Other operators in the USA such as AT&T and Verizon use other LTE bands that are more widely used worldwide, and more likely to be supported on your phone.

If you are roaming on T-Mobile USA, or if you are a T-Mobile USA subscriber, lack of support for Band 71 is likely to be an issue, at least as of now, primarily in rural areas. T-Mobile USA mainly uses other bands in urban areas, and is using Band 71 mainly to fill in coverage in less densely populated areas.

In general, T-Mobile USA coverage in rural areas has been worse than that of AT&T or Verizon. T-Mobile USA is trying to use Band 71 to close some of those gaps.

There's an unofficial (not necessarily accurate or complete) guide to devices that support LTE Band 71 here:

https://www.tmoband71.com/

This is an issue for visitors mainly because T-Mobile USA has often had some of the best prices for SIMs for short-term visitors. If you plan a rural road trip in the USA, and your device doesn't support Band 71 (and maybe even if it does), it may be worth paying more for a SIM from AT&T or Verizon.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 24 March 2022, 08:43 ( 8:43 AM)

Edward, I'm currently in Buenos Aires and, on arrival, my T-Mobile account told me I have unlimited 2G data access. Most of the time, however, the signal is a feeble 3G that's almost useless. On rare occasion, there's an LTE signal, but even that's not all that good.

I've not been to Chile for two years now, but even then it was mostly a pretty good LTE connection.

For what it's worth, I'm using an iPhone XR.

Posted by: Bernhardson Wayne, 29 March 2022, 13:29 ( 1:29 PM)
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