On 3 February 2023, Ofcom published guidance setting out how it expects mobile providers to conduct themselves during the upcoming switch-off of 2G and 3G networks in the UK.

This article provides an overview of the background to the switch-off of 2G and 3G networks in the UK, and summarises some of Ofcom’s main expectations of mobile network operators (MNOs).


The UK’s mobile networks are currently based on four generations of mobile technology.

Mobile networks based on 2G and 3G mobile technology were first deployed in the early 1990s and the early 2000’s (respectively).

As 4G and 5G mobile technology has developed, and 4G and 5G network deployment has proliferated across the UK, existing 2G and 3G technologies and networks have becoming largely obsolete. This has been recognised by all UK MNOs, who in 2021 communicated to the Government their intention to sunset 2G and 3G networks by the end of 2033, in response to the Government’s recommendation to establish a date by which all public 2G and 3G networks in the UK would be switched offs.[1]

The switch-off of these legacy mobile networks will enable a faster rollout of the new networks, as radio spectrum used for 2G and 3G services can be used for 4G and 5G services, and wider 4G and 5G network coverage throughout the UK and therefore providing consumers with higher speeds and increased reliability.

The approach to switch-off of the 2G/3G networks will be a staggered and varied one, with MNOs having the discretion to determine the timing and process that they wish to adopt. For example, Vodafone is planning to commence its phased 3G switch-off later in February, while EE and Three propose to switch off their networks some time in 2024. Virgin Media-O2 has not yet announced its intended switch-off date.

The impact

As most consumers now have devices which can support 4G and 5G capabilities, the impact of the switch-off will be fairly minimal. Current estimates indicate that around 6% of mobile subscriptions relate to devices which rely on 2G or 3G connectivity[2].

However, customers with older mobile devices (and older telecare alarms and payment terminals) will need to replace them with 4G and 5G capable devices in order to enjoy the benefits of the newer networks.

What are Ofcom’s expectations?

Although Ofcom will not play a formal role in the switch-off process, it is keen to “ensure that consumers are treated fairly and can continue to access the services they need”.[3]

As such, Ofcom has produced a non-binding document setting out its expectations of mobile network providers during the switch-off process to ensure that consumers are protected and that the relevant regulatory requirements are complied with (Guidance).

The Guidance sets out four key expectations of MNOs, which are explored in more detail below: 

1. Minimising coverage impact

Ofcom’s key expectation is that the switch-off will not have a detrimental impact on mobile network coverage in general. So far, EE, Three and Vodafone have all committed to providing a broadly equivalent level of coverage through enabling 4G  in areas where legacy services are switched off.

To comply with such commitments, Ofcom sets out an expectation on operators to:

  • analyse coverage before commencing switch off;
  • deliver equivalent network coverage through enabling 4G services;
  • where 3G networks are switched-off prior to 2G networks, to ensure 2G networks have sufficient capacity to handle additional traffic likely to be generated; and
  • update online coverage checkers.

2. Contractual information about switch-off

In light of the potential for customers to sign up to 2G and 3G services before the relevant switch-off date, Ofcom sets out an expectation for mobile network providers to provide an explanation to customers in their contracts as to the impact of the 2G/3G switch-off and the need to upgrade to a 4G-capable device.

Further, under consumer protection based conditions under Ofcom’s General Conditions of Entitlement, and relevant consumer law in relation to transparency of contract terms, Ofcom has foreshadowed that where 2G/3G services are switched off, this would require a modification to a consumer’s contract; and where such a contractual change goes beyond what a customer agreed to, the MNO should permit the customer to exit their contract with no penalty.

3. Communication with and support of customers

Linked to the above expectation, Ofcom expects all MNOs to communicate the switch off, and use clear and simple language to ensure customers understand the implications of the switch off.

Where a customer needs to upgrade their device, Ofcom recommends that they are provided with at least 3-6 months’ notice of the steps that are required to be taken. Communication should be clear and concise, and providers should use a range of communication channels to ensure that all customers are reached, including unregistered customers of PAYG devices.

With regards to vulnerable customers, additional support will be required. For those customers who are struggling financially, Ofcom has suggested that network providers offer discounts on replacement devices.

4. Other services reliant on mobile networks

Although it will predominantly be mobile phone users who are impacted by the switch-off, Ofcom also recognises that there are other services which are dependent on mobile networks. This includes telecare alarms and payment terminals which tend to use roaming SIMs rather than having a direct contractual relationship with a particular network provider.

As such, Ofcom sets out an expectation on network providers to identify services which are reliant on mobile networks and raise awareness to ensure that suppliers have sufficient time to find replacement devices to perform the relevant functions.

Broader trends in relation to legacy networks

The switch off of 2G and 3G networks follows a trend in the telecommunications industry as various other legacy networks and services have become obsolete as they are replaced by newer technologies.

Some examples are provided below:

  • Review of the telephony universal service obligation:[4] In June 2022, Ofcom decided to update the telephony universal service obligations in relation to the provision public phone boxes to reflect a decline in the use of public phone boxes and the need for a modernisation in the types of services available from public phone boxes.
  • Switch off of the public switching telephone network (PSTN): It is expected that UK’s PSTN (the traditional circuit-switched telephone network, which enables fixed telephony services) will be sun-setted by December 2025, as such technology becomes replaced with digital based services.[5] Ofcom published statement in relation to protecting voice-only landline telephone customers on 25 March 2021.[6]

What’s next for the 2G/3G switch-off? 

Ofcom intends to continue its work with mobile network providers and affected stakeholders to develop a clear understanding of the issues involved with the switch-off, and to ensure that the providers are implementing the expectations it has set out. This will include:

  • monitoring the plans produced by mobile network providers to effect switch-off;
  • meeting with mobile network providers to discuss progress; and
  • gathering metrics on affected customers and coverage.

DLA Piper continues to monitor updates and developments to Ofcom’s work on in relation to the 2G/3G network switch-off and the wider telecoms sector. For further information or if you have any questions please contact the authors or your usual DLA Piper contact.

[1] Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, ‘A joint statement on the sunsetting of 2G and 3G networks and public ambition for Open RAN rollout as part of the Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Strategy’, 8 December 2021, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/a-joint-statement-on-the-sunsetting-of-2g-and-3g-networks-and-public-ambition-for-open-ran-rollout-as-part-of-the-telecoms-supply-chain-diversificatio

[2] Ofcom, ‘3G and 2G switch-off: Our expectations of mobile providers’, 3 February 2023, available at: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/phones-telecoms-and-internet/information-for-industry/policy/2g-and-3g-switch-off-our-expectations-of-mobile-providers

[3] Ofcom, ‘3G and 2G switch-off: Our expectations of mobile providers’, 3 February 2023, available at: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/phones-telecoms-and-internet/information-for-industry/policy/2g-and-3g-switch-off-our-expectations-of-mobile-providers

[4] Consultation: Review of the telephony universal service obligation (ofcom.org.uk)

[5] Upgrading landlines to digital technology – what you need to know – Ofcom

[6] Statement: Protecting voice-only landline customers (ofcom.org.uk)