3G is being switched off – but don’t panic!

By | March 6, 2023
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If you have a mobile phone on the Vodafone network, you might have heard that they’re planning to switch off the “3G” network this year. In fact, their switch-off has already started, with Plymouth and Basingstoke being the first areas to lose the older mobile network.

It’s always a bit disconcerting to hear that something’s being switched off, especially if you’re not sure whether or not it affects you. I’ll do my best to explain what it means, and whether you need to do anything.

So what actually is 3G? It’s a type of mobile phone signal that lets you connect to the internet by carrying information to, from and across a huge network of mobile phone masts.

3G (or “3rd generation”) is just one of many different “generations” of signal. As we use our mobile phones more often and for more high-tech things, phone networks have had to keep improving and expanding so they can carry all that information. For example, in the early days of mobile internet, no one was watching high definition funny videos of cats on their phone while they waited for the bus, but now it’s par for the course – and you need a 4G or even 5G signal to be able to do that. 3G is considered to be pretty slow and clunky nowadays, and you’d struggle to play a video on your phone or tablet using only a 3G connection. Which is why (I assume!) the network providers have decided to switch it off.

Throughout 2023 and 2024, 3G mobile internet is being phased out across the UK, area by area. It’s being replaced by (hopefully) wider coverage of 5G signals instead. So, if you’re out and about and have your phone’s “mobile data” switched on, then instead of connecting to a 3G signal, it should connect to a 4G or 5G signal instead – as long as your phone is “4G ready” or “5G ready” (more about that in a minute).

The only difference you’ll see is that at the top of your screen, near to the little rectangular bars showing your mobile phone signal, it will say either 4G or 5G in tiny writing, instead of 3G. But you should also notice an improvement in the speed of your mobile internet if you try to watch cat videos while you’re waiting for the bus…

Whether you can actually use 4G (or better) signals on your mobile phone or tablet depends on:

  • Your device – can it send and receive the signals?
  • Your sim card (the little plastic thing in your phone that gives you your phone number) – it’s almost certain yours will be 4G ready, as they have been for a good long while.
  • Your mobile “calling plan” – does it cover 4G?

The easiest way to tell if you can use 4G is to test it: Next time you’re out and about with your mobile phone, switch off wi-fi and switch on mobile data. Then look at the very top of your phone – if it says “4G” in small writing above some tiny arrows then you’re able to connect to the mobile network using 4G, and you don’t need to worry about 3G being switched off.

If you don’t seem to be connecting to 4G when you test it out, it might not be your phone though. Not all mobile calling plans include it, especially the older ones. You should (hopefully!) be contacted by your mobile phone network provider (EE, Vodafone etc..) to be offered an upgrade, or you can give them a call if you’re not sure.

Vodafone are the first company to start the switch-off. They’re planning to have all the 3G turned off by the end of the year, but they’re doing it an area at a time. EE are the next to start, with plans to have 3G fully turned off by early next year, and Three have said they’ll turn off the network by the end of 2024. Only O2 of “the big four” haven’t announced anything yet.

Anyway, that’s it from me for this week. Take care.

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