Farewell, 2G. AT&T officially ended 2G support on its network as of the first of the year, and it’s a safe bet almost no one noticed. Dropping 2G support means older phones like the original iPhone won’t work for phone calls any more, and it also opens wireless spectrum that’ll eventually benefit LTE.
Ending 2G support wasn’t a surprise. AT&T announced 2G’s coming demise four years ago, and has been working to get old-school stragglers into phones supporting more modern 3G and 4G wireless technologies. As of January 1st, 2017, anyone who hadn’t retired their 2G phone didn’t have to worry about unwanted calls—or any calls at all.
That said, AT&T is still supporting surprisingly old phones like the iPhone 3G. The iconic original iPhone, however, has finally been left behind.
2G, 3G, 4G, and LTE Primer
Wireless data and cellular communication standards gets confusing fairly quickly, but we’ll get through this together. The short version is that 2G is really old and slow, 3G is a little newer and faster, and 4G/LTE is newer and faster still.
Your carrier plays a big role in the speed of your wireless data connection, too. As a rule of thumb, AT&T and T-Mobile are faster than Verizon and Sprint.
2G dates back to the 1990s and marks the first time cell phones could make digital calls. It didn’t support wireless data, at least not in the way we’re used to today. Still, AT&T considers EDGE as part of its 2G network, which is why the original iPhone can’t make or receive calls any more.
Original iPhone owners remember EDGE and how amazing it was to have what seemed like a truly usable and always available wireless data connection. EDGE came along after 2G but before 3G, making it something like 2.5G. EDGE and AT&T’s 2G network operated on the GSM 800/1900 MHz frequencies, which are about to get repurposed.
3G was a game changer for the iPhone because that’s when our wireless data connections turned into something we could really use all the time thanks to its substantially faster speeds. Apple’s first smartphone model to support the faster standard was aptly named the iPhone 3G. AT&T’s 3G network is now the minimum supported and operates on the cryptic-sounding WCDMA (UMTS) HSPA 850/1900 MHz (Band 2 and Band 5) frequencies.
4G and LTE Wireless
4G and LTE made their debut on the iPhone 5 with markedly faster connection speeds compared to 3G. 4G operates on HSPA and HSPA+ 850/1900 MHz (Band 2 and Band 5). LTE, which is an even faster version of AT&T’s 4G network operates on HSPA and HSPA+ HSPA and HSPA+ 850/1900 MHz (Band 2 and Band 5), as well as 1700/2100 MHz (Band 4), and 700 MHz (Band 17).
The Argument for Killing 2G/EDGE
For AT&T, the decision to shut down its 2G network can be summed up in two words: wireless congestion. AT&T Technology and Operations Chief Strategy Officer and Group President John Donovan explained the decision saying,
Today, our 3G and 4G LTE networks cover 99% of Americans. By shutting down our 2G network, this frees up more spectrum for future network technologies, including 5G. In the next few months, we plan to repurpose that spectrum for LTE.
Wireless data usage on AT&T’s network is up 250,000% percent since 2007, which just so happens to be when the original iPhone launched. The iPhone changed the smartphone landscape by turning the devices into a tool for everyone and not just business executives.
Today, Apple and Samsung account for the bulk of smartphones, and customers are using more wireless data every year. Carriers need to expand their infrastructure to accomodate their users, so AT&T is repurposing the little used 2G spectrum to help ease the strain on its 4G LTE network.
For modern iPhone owners, that’s good news. As for those retro first generation iPhones? They’re still cool and work on WiFi networks; they just aren’t phones any more.