The Conversation Had Ended and AT&T Has Finally Hung up the Phone...For Good

By: Consuelo Azuaje

On January 1 this year AT&T finally shutdown its 2G network, and nary a peep nor clatter arose in complaint. We at James Brehm & Associates felt bound by professional and personal curiosity to ask one question: Why? We understand that if a tree falls in an empty forest, that its fall is noiseless, for all intents and purposes. (Nobody heard it, after all.) But the community that had used AT&T’s 2G—the M2M/IoT crowd—heavily populates the Telco forest. So, how did AT&T pull it off, and what made AT&T shutdown their 2G in the first place? Well, let’s take a look at the context.

The past twenty years have shown a substantial increase in mobile broadband data usage and a need for quicker networks with greater data capacity. (Last year, Cisco made the prediction that a continued demand for increased data capacity would drive an 800% increase in mobile data traffic, and AT&T recently reported that data usage on their networks alone had grown by 250,000% since 2007.) To keep up with demand, AT&T and other carriers periodically created newer, faster, more muscular networks which displaced older ones. 5G is around the corner and AT&T needed to free up some spectrum.

Wanting to give M2M/IoT-clients plenty of time to prepare, AT&T announced back in 2012 that it would shutting down its 2G networks by 2017. They made a huge push to retain 2G customers by having them migrate from 2G to to Cat-1, 3G, or 4G networks. They also offered free 3G Samsung Evergreen phones to customers that were still using 2G phones. Of their 4 million 2G customers, they successfully migrated 2 million. The 2 million that were left were mostly M2M users, so their resistance to migration made sense. Their devices, probably low-power, had longer battery/shelf life, so it would have been too costly to replace them all at once.

Plus , Verizon and T-Mobile, still in the 2G game, were available to absorb many of the customers that hadn’t wanted to migrate to different type of connectivity. Verizon has stated that they plan to keep their 2G networks until 2019—and T-Mobile has announced that they intend to keep running their 2G nets until 2020. In fact, T-Mobile was quick to take advantage of the situation and offered AT&T’s doggedly 2G customers free SIM cards, services bundles tailored for IoT-clientele, and the option of switching over to T-Mobile free of charge.

Now that AT&T’s 2G network has been shutdown can it be said that it even occupied a space in the telecommunications world? At one point, yes. And to a certain degree, it still does—just not as much. Like a dying campfire which burns long enough to keep its people warm but slowly cools after they have left, 2G has done exactly what it has needed to do for as long as needed—and now that we’re moving on, it’s just a few short steps away from becoming fully retired. We gathered around it for warmth, looked at the stars, and drew our own IoT constellations—swapping (what seemed like) wild connections between devices and envisioned our IoT future. Then the sun rose, other technologies emerged—and we moved on.