JUL 20, 2024

3G Shutdown in Australia: Why, When and What You Must Do to Prepare

Australia’s three mobile networks – Telstra, Optus and TPG/Vodafone – are in the process of decommissioning their 3G networks in favour of 4G and 5G network technologies. The days of 3G coverage in Australia are truly limited, and now is the time to prepare for that switchover.

Why are 3G Networks being shut down? Why can’t they just run alongside 4G and 5G?

Each of Australia’s mobile network providers holds licences for the radio spectrum used to provide mobile network services – and there’s only so much to go around.

That’s just physics, but what’s happened over mobile generations is that the technology has improved such that network providers can get more coverage and throughput from newer mobile standards such as 4G or 5G than they could out of older network types like 2G and 3G. That’s why Australia’s 2G networks were shuttered in 2016/2017, and now it’s the turn of 3G networks.

While it’s something of a simplification, think of mobile networks like roads. 3G networks were fast in their day – a 40kph zone compared to 2G’s 20kph – but 4G and 5G are much faster on the same roadways. They’re the equivalent of the 110kph zone, or in the case of 5G, more like the 500kph zone on the same tracks!

 It’s not possible to expand out the mobile network “roads” with additional lanes, but more speed can be achieved – both in the quantity of traffic on a network as well as the actual speed that data pings around that network if the older slower lanes are decommissioned to make space. With limited spectrum, it makes a lot of sense for the radio lots that each telco has the rights for to switch up to faster and more reliable mobile network standards.

You might be thinking that you’re happy with your 3G-only handset for voice calls, for example, but the reality of modern mobile networks is that even voice calls are carried over data networks. Switching up to 4G and 5G coverage ensures greater capacity for both data and calls, which should also lead to better reception and better call quality over time.

When will 3G networks shut down in Australia?

The answer to this question does depend on which mobile network you’re currently using. For customers on the TPG/Vodafone network – so brands such as TPG, Vodafone, Kogan Mobile, Felix Mobile and Lebara for example – 3G coverage is already gone, with the network decommissioning 3G from December 2023.

Telstra was due to be next in line with an announced closure date of the end of June 2024, but it has recently shifted that date two months back to the end of August, citing concerns around Australians with older 3G-only phones or 4G phones that default to 3G networks for 000 emergency calls. The additional time is intended, as per Telstra, to give those customers more time to switch to a newer and more compatible device.

Telstra says it’s going to contact customers, but it also has a simple SMS service to check your device; texting the number 3 to 3498 will result in the network sending you a message to indicate if your phone needs to be updated to a newer model. Telstra’s network also powers a number of other brands such as ALDI Mobile, Woolworths Mobile, Belong, Tangerine and Mate for example. Those brands (and any others on the Telstra wholesale network) will also lose 3G coverage when Telstra switches off its 3G network.

Optus is (at the time of writing) going to be the last to drop 3G network services, with its 3G network due to be switched off from September 2024. Optus’ network is used by a lot of other brands including (but not limited to) amaysim, Circles.Life, Dodo, Moose Mobile, Aussie Broadband, SpinTel and Yomojo, and they’ll drop 3G at the exact same time.

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What happens if I don’t buy a new compatible phone?

It does slightly depend on the specific age and coverage of your phone. For considerably older 3G-only handsets, you would lose the ability to make or take calls entirely, as well as any kind of mobile data access, though those devices could theoretically access data over standard Wi-Fi as they already do.

There’s also a subset of slightly older “4G” phones that default back to 3G for some call types, especially 000 calls. That’s a function largely of their age and the switch over to more data-centric calling on 4G networks using a standard called VoLTE (Voice over LTE). For those handsets, while you’d still be able to access 4G networks for data, calling capabilities may cease.

Will my phone stop working when 3G stops working?

It very much depends on the age of your phone – and specifically the age when it was produced, not necessarily how long you’ve had it, because it’s entirely feasible to buy older phones that are “new” to you.

Obviously, if you’ve got a 3G-only phone then that’s going to stop working on mobile networks entirely, because there simply won’t be a mobile network out there for them to see.

It is a little trickier to discern if you’ve got a 4G phone that might drop some or all of its calling capability. It’s further complicated by the fact that different networks offer different support for some devices, so some devices might support VoLTE on Optus but not Telstra, for example.

You could delve deep into the specifications of your device, but honestly the best approach if you’ve got a handset that dates from about 2016 or earlier that’s still your daily driver is to contact your phone network provider and ask them for clarification.

In most cases they’ll be well aware of which handsets are and are not supported – and it’s also somewhat likely that they’ll be wanting to contact you directly in any case, because it’s not like they want to lose you as a customer! If you’re unsure, check, because the last thing you would want would be to discover that you can’t make a critical 000 call at the precise moment you most need to. Even if your phone is 100% fine and supported, it’s best to know that upfront.

I don’t want to buy a new phone – can I upgrade my phone to make it work after 3G shuts down?

Sadly, the answer there is no. Mobile phones as they’ve been made to date are rather fixed in terms of their network hardware, and this means that a phone that’s going to become incompatible once 3G shuts down is going to stay incompatible.

You don’t necessarily have to spend thousands of dollars upgrading, however. The cheapest 4G handsets which would still be compatible can be purchased for under $100 quite easily, including both smartphone and feature phone options, while if 5G tickles your fancy, low-cost options start at around $250 outright.

Is it only 3G phones that are affected by this shutdown?

No. If you have other devices that use a 3G sim, such as a medical alarm, some industrial or agricultural monitoring or security equipment, or any other device that’s strictly 3G only, then it will also need replacing with a 4G-compatible alternative. When the 3G network goes, it’s gone for all devices that rely on 3G only connectivity.

I only get 3G mobile network coverage at home or at work. Will I lose all coverage?

It’s tricky to give an absolute guarantee here, but the statements made by all three networks are that they expect their 4G networks to provide at least identical coverage, and in some cases expanded coverage over the areas currently only served by 3G network technologies.

Part of the process of decommissioning 3G network sites is in switching them over to 4G only coverage, or as the rollout progresses, to include the newer 5G standard as well.

It absolutely is worth your while keeping an eye on your mobile coverage over time in any case, because if you do fall into a coverage black hole, you can always check with your provider (or other networks) to see if better options are available to you. That’s likely to be more of an issue for Australians in more rural and remote areas than those in larger regional centres or cities, where it’s considerably rarer – though not unheard of – to see much useable 3G signal anyway.

Need help setting up a new mobile phone?

If you’re impacted by the 3G shutdown and need help setting up a new mobile phone, Geeks2U can help. Our expert Geeks will help to transfer your contacts and messages, set up apps and accounts, backup data and more.

Book online
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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.