Why 3G Sunset Can Accelerate 5G Roll Out

In line with the MCMC’s initiatives launched as part of the National Digital Network Plan (JENDELA), Malaysian operators are sunsetting their 3G networks to repurpose these spectrum bands for newer wireless technology (initially 4G, but they will also serve as a strong foundation for 5G in the future). However, while mobile operators are trying to achieve nationwide retirement of 3G networks by the end of 2021, there are still users who rely on 3G, which could make it harder for Malaysian operators to switch off legacy 3G networks and improve users’ mobile experience as there is a risk of digital exclusion.

In this new analysis, Opensignal investigated why some of our users — which we call “3G-only users” — have never connected to a 4G network. Our analysis found three primary reasons why many smartphone users in Malaysia never connected to 4G networks and continue to depend upon 3G.

1. Users do not have a 4G subscription: Our data shows that 81.9% of 3G-only smartphone users in Malaysia had a 4G-capable smartphone and spent time in 4G-covered areas (where we saw other smartphone users connecting to 4G networks on the same mobile network provider). These 3G-only users either lacked a 4G-capable SIM, have not upgraded to a 4G subscription in their price plan (as they may not be aware of its benefits) or they may have disabled 4G on their phone.
2. Users don’t have a 4G-capable device: 12% of our 3G-only smartphone users in Malaysia spent time in 4G-covered areas but used a smartphone that only had 3G capability. Several factors could contribute to this. For example, while 4G-enabled smartphones are becoming increasingly affordable, users may have held on to older 3G-only models because cost remains a barrier for low-income users. For others, they may lack awareness of the benefits of 4G over 3G devices. 
3. Users are not covered by 4G networks: 5.6% of our 3G-only smartphone users had 4G-capable smartphone devices but spent their time in areas where we have never seen a 4G measurement from their mobile network operator. This suggests that they did not connect to 4G networks because they spent time in areas outside of 4G coverage. In addition, 0.5% of our 3G-only smartphone users lacked both 4G coverage and 4G-capable devices, which brings the number of Malaysian 3G-only users outside of the 4G footprint to 6.1%. This small percentage shows that a lack of 4G network coverage is not the main reason for the large numbers of 3G-only users in Malaysia.

3G-only users in Malaysia have a worse mobile experience compared to 4G users

There are clear benefits from the use of 4G as users have a better mobile experience. Opensignal’s analysis reveals that Malaysia’s 3G-only smartphone users experienced significantly lower download speeds averaging 3.7 Mbps —  72.1% slower than that experienced by our 4G users (13.4 Mbps). Furthermore, 3G-only users connected to mobile data networks 90.9% of the time — 7.5 percentage points lower than their counterparts who were using a 4G connection. This suggests that 3G-only users in 4G-covered areas would observe a substantial uplift in their mobile experience if they were to upgrade to 4G.

If both the main 3G bands used in Malaysia – the 900MHz and  2100 MHz bands — are used for 4G services, the mobile experience will improve for Malaysia because 4G, and future 5G networks, are more efficient at using spectrum capacity than old 2G and 3G technology. The newer standards can support faster speeds, more data usage, more users (or even a combination of the three) in the same quantity of MHz compared with 2G and 3G.

Migrating 3G-only users to 4G could be a win-win in Malaysia

Opensignal data shows a huge disparity exists in the mobile network experience of our 3G-only and 4G users in Malaysia. Our analysis shows that the main reason why some smartphone users don’t benefit from 4G yet is a lack of a 4G subscription, rather than because of weak 4G coverage. There is therefore a clear opportunity for mobile operators and MCMC to evangelize the benefits of the improved 4G mobile experience to encourage 3G-only smartphone users to switch to a 4G SIM and tariff.

As Malaysia advances towards 5G, operators will benefit from migrating 3G-only smartphone users to 4G and refarming existing 3G spectrum bands to 4G services. That will help accelerate the deployment of 4G and 5G networks which should help to bridge the digital divide and improve smartphone users’ overall mobile network experience, driving positive social and economic outcomes.

By Hardik Khatri- OpenSignal

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