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Vodafone’s users spend more time on 5G, as it shuts down 3G across Australia

3G is on the way out in Australia, with Vodafone being the first operator to commence shutting down its network across the country. Starting December 2023, Vodafone has been deactivating its 3G network, region by region. Telstra and Optus have also announced that they will commence shutting down their own 3G networks in June and September 2024, respectively.

In this analysis, we look at the impact 3G shutdown is having on Vodafone’s user experience in Australia. In particular, we look at the prevalence of 3G connections in Australia, alongside the effects of Vodafone’s 3G switch off on both user experience and user connectivity. Optus and Telstra users spend over 3% of their time on 3G, with Vodafone’s Time on 3G being half as much. Examining Vodafone’s connectivity in Australia’s eight largest cities, unsurprisingly Time on 3G has decreased while Time with No Signal has risen marginally. Conversely, Time on 5G has increased considerably. Our Vodafone users’ mobile network experience, particularly their download speeds, have also seen improvements.

It has been some time since 3G was new and shiny, the technology was first launched in Australia back in 2003. 4G and 5G have all but made 3G obsolete, and the spectrum allocated to it can be better used by being redeployed on these technologies. That isn’t to say that 3G sees no use, our Optus and Telstra users still spend over three percent of their time with a 3G connection, and Vodafone’s percentage has dropped to 1.5% during the shutdown. Furthermore, there are many devices and systems that rely on 3G connections such as medical alarms and security systems. These devices will need to be upgraded to work on the current networks.

Vodafone is the first Australian operator to begin shutting down its 3G mobile network. Comparing signal availability in the eight largest Australian cities against the same time period six months prior, Time on 3G has dropped considerably — by between 1.1 percentage points in Newcastle-Maitland and up to three percentage points in Canberra-Queanbeyan. Time with No Signal, however, has not shot up in response. While most of the cities do see an increase in Time with No Signal, it is marginal, with a maximum rise of 0.3 percentage points in Gold Coast-Tweed Heads. This leaves Gold Coast-Tweed Heads the only one of these cities with a higher Time on No Signal percentage than Vodafone’s national average of 0.7% — at 0.9%. The rest of the analyzed cities are either on par — Canberra-Queanbeyan at 0.7% — or have less Time with No Signal, with Adelaide and Newcastle-Maitland scoring just 0.4%.

In fact, our data shows that traffic has shifted onto 5G networks. Across all eight cities Time on 5G has risen greatly — over 10 percentage points in Brisbane and Perth. Additionally, traffic has moved off of 4G networks as our Vodafone users proportionally spend less time connected to 4G services in all eight cities.

With Vodafone’s network moving away from slower 3G connections, and with users spending more time with 5G connections it isn’t a surprise that the mobile network experience has improved for our users. Since August 2023, our Vodafone users’ average download speeds have increased by two-fifths on both overall and 5G networks — upload speeds have seen more modest improvements of around 10%. Vodafone users now spend over a quarter of their time with a 5G connection — up from a fifth in August — allowing them to greater utilize the benefits that 5G provides. This number will only increase as time goes on.

Vodafone’s 3G shutdown has shown that the removal of 3G networks does not translate into increased time without signal for our users. Not only that, the spectrum freed will be repurposed to improve existing 5G networks, benefitting user experience, and increasing connectivity. Vodafone had already been refarming its 2100MHz 3G spectrum and allocating it for 5G services, but now it can do the same for its 900MHz spectrum. These spectrum allocations will make it more economical for operators to deploy 5G infrastructure, and improve the existing network.      

While this analysis shows little to no disruption in Vodafone’s service during the operator’s shutoff of 3G, this is from the perspective of our mobile broadband users. There are other use cases that currently rely on the existing 3G network and a gradual transition is important to ensure they don’t slip through the cracks. Australia’s Senate has opened an inquiry into the planned shutdown, to deal with the potential issues facing users with older 4G devices that do not support Voice over LTE, which once 3G is shut down will not be able to call emergency services. The matter has been referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee — although the report is not set to be completed until 30 November 2024, after the shutdown has commenced on all three networks.