In early February, Vodafone Germany gave an update on its 3G sunsetting processes, ahead of its planned shutoff date of 30th June 2021. The operator noted that data usage on 3G had dropped to new lows of just over 2%, and it had been able to refarm 5 MHz of 2100 MHz spectrum from 3G to 4G.
In Tutela’s data, we observe this change primarily happening between the 26th and 28th January, beginning around the Cologne area, then covering northern Germany, before reaching Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg on 29th January. We can see this change occurring in the hexmap of the most commonly observed bandwidth for 4G 2100 MHz connections in a given area. The map initially shows the entire country using 10 MHz of 2100 MHz spectrum (red), but over the date range, this switches to 15 MHz (blue).
3G usage is down to just 3.4% of connection time
The move comes as part of an ongoing effort from Vodafone Germany, which was announced in May 2020, to sunset 3G technology nationwide. The percent of time users were spending on 3G had already declined sharply through the end of 2019, from 28.9% of time on 3G in October 2019 down to just 7.8% of connection time when the May announcement was made. Now, that figure sits at just 3.4% in Tutela’s data. This echoes the approximate 2% data usage figure that Vodafone cited in their announcement – and it is not unusual for time on metrics to be slightly higher than data usage ones on 3G as users may linger on a 3G connection but wait to download files until they are in a 4G area or WiFi range.
Meanwhile, the percentage of time users spend connected to 4G, with 2100 Mhz as the primary band is now up to 35.3%, indicating that the refarmed spectrum is a significant contributing factor to Vodafone Germany subscribers’ mobile experience. Following the addition of the extra 5 MHz, Tutela’s data also suggests that 2100 Mhz 4G is becoming the dominant band for Vodafone, taking over from 4G 800 MHz, which has historically been the most-utilized primary band for connection time.
The extra 5 Mhz improved download speeds by 31%
The impact of the additional 5 MHz capacity is hard to overstate. The median download speed on 4G 2100 Mhz connections jumps from 24.3 Mbps in early January, up to 31.9 Mbps after the switchover. This increase is an almost overnight improvement of 31%. Telekom, who placed first for median download throughput in the most recent Tutela Mobile Experience Snapshot, achieved a result of 31.4 Mbps, and if Vodafone’s improved speeds remain steady, we may see some competition for this top spot next time around.
However, it takes more than just download speed to deliver an outstanding user experience on mobile. While the speed increase is undoubtedly impressive, Vodafone will have to continue focusing on improving underlying KPIs like packet loss in order to fully realise the benefits of the additional capacity for user experience on the 2100 Mhz spectrum.
Meanwhile, Deutsche Telekom is targeting the same date to switch off its 3G network, while Telefonica is targeting the end of 2021. Both will likely be conducting similar refarming exercises in the near future. Using real-time crowdsourced data can provide invaluable insight into the current state of each operator’s 3G sunsetting progress, both informing on competitor strategy as well as highlighting focus areas where pockets of subscribers may continue to rely on 3G – and which operators will need to address to ensure a seamless and effective transition to 4G and beyond.