Yes, I know NTT-DoCoMo has long shut down their 2G network but that was a special case as it was their proprietary technology little used anywhere else. Since then there have been rumors, speculations and analysis when network operators in other countries in the world might switch-off their more popular and wide spread 2G GSM networks. Now AT&T has given a date for their US GSM network shutdown, it's envisaged for 2017 as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
2017, that's 5 years from now. I've noticed AT&T making a lot of progress of deploying UMTS in remote areas and 5 years is enough time to continue the process in addition to rolling out LTE. Also, when I was recently in Canada, I was positively surprised about the 3G coverage along highways in sparsely populated areas between cities. On 850 MHz, the coverage area of a UMTS cell is similar to that of a GSM cell and for carriers that quit CDMA in the past to go to UMTS it obviously did not make sense to deploy GSM alongside.
5 Years ago, back in 2007 I had a post on this blog about when GSM will be switched-off. Let's take a look what I thought at that time and how that matches today's situation and AT&T's announcement:
"So what are we going to see in Europe by 2012 then? In five years from now [i.e. 2012] I expect the majority of subscribers in Europe to have a 3G compatible phone that is backwards compatible to 2G. "
[Yes, right on the mark, more than half of the phones sold today are smartphones and even feature phones have 3G included now, too. There are few models now to be found in shops that are only GSM.]
In urban areas, operators might decide do downscale their GSM deployment a bit as most people now use the 3G instead of the 2G network for voice calls. Cities will still be covered by GSM but maybe with fewer number of available channels / bandwidth.
[Mostly on the mark: While for many years people have switched off 3G in their phones for fear of higher battery power consumption and thus made most of their voice calls on 2G, that's a thing of the past in 2012. Accessing services on the Internet from smartphones has become a mass market trend. As a consequence, most voice calls from such phones are now established over 3G networks. In the UK, O2 has deployed UMTS 900 in London. It's still a bit of an exception in Europe. O2 in the UK is in the fortunate position of owning half of the 900 MHz band so it could easily carve out 5 MHz and put a UMTS channel there. There are no announcements of similar intentions by other European network operators for the moment. However, with voice calls migrating to 3G due to the use of smartphones I think this will not remain the only major urban deployment of UMTS 900 in Europe.]
"Such a scenario could come in combination with yet another equipment refresh which some operators require by then for both their 2G and 3G networks. At that time, base station equipment that integrates 2G, 3G and beyond 3G radios such as LTE could become very attractive. The motto of the hour could be "Replace your aging 2G and 3G equipment with a new base station that can do both plus LTE on top!"
"I wonder if it is possible by then to only use one set of antennas for all three radio technologies!? If not, adding yet another set of antennas on top of an already crowded mast is not simple from both a technological and psychological point of view."
[Today, at least GSM and UMTS use the same antenna but I haven't yet seen what kind of antennas are used at base station sites at which GSM, UMTS and LTE are deployed, all in very different frequency bands. Single antenna solutions exist, even in variants that have several antennas in a single casing, as for example demonstrated by Kathrein at the Mobile World Congress in 2011].
When looking at all of these developments I think it is very likely that we will see a lot of movement around what kind of technology is used in the 900 MHz band in Europe. In many countries, licenses for the 900 MHz spectrum will be renewed, reassigned or re-auctioned in this time frame and in many countries auctions for the 800 MHz digital dividend band and the 2600 MHz band for LTE have not yet been undertaken. All of this will have a significant impact on what network operators will do with their 900 MHz spectrum assets. My prediction is that GSM will still be around in Europe in 2017 but the debate on when to switch it off will be in full swing. I've described how such a phaseout could look like in a post on 'GSM Phaseout Scenarios'. Despite written in 2008 I think it still applies from today's perspective.