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M2M Industry Faces Call to Action with 2G GSM Sunset, Part 2: Why Is this Happening? A Short Spectrum History Reveals the Answer

AT&Ts planned shutdown of its 2G GSM GPRS network by Jan. 1, 2017 places a burden on M2M companies using AT&T to switch over to an alternative by the deadline. When announced in 2012, an estimated 10 to 12 million GSM M2M devices on AT&Ts network had to be replaced before the service is removedmost of these millions of units are still in operation and still require removal.

For companies using AT&Ts 2G GSM networks, its important to understand the historical and business issues in order to make the right decision for your program today and in the years to come.

When switching to digital cellular, all traditional cellular operator networks in North America offered one of two protocols, which use incompatible coding and data standards. For a variety of technical and business reasons, some operators chose the CDMA protocol, and others, the GSM protocol, for their cellular network and services.

As a result, the first M2M cellular deployments for IP data were established using two packet-data services: 2G CDMA 1xRTT or 2G GSM GPRS. The automotive and trucking industries for example, chose CDMA for the higher data throughput and easy roaming into Analog AMPS in rural market areas before digital became available in those markets. More importantly, automobile design and production cycles drove a requirement for service longevity, for which CDMA was the best choice.

However, CDMA radios were 2 to 2.5 times more expensive than GSM radios. Cost-conscious industries, such as the residential and commercial alarm/security businesses, chose 2G GSM GPRS because the far lower cost of radios was just too attractive to ignore. The simpler technology of the GSM protocol, combined with the scale and volume of GSM device sales ininternational markets, dropped radio prices rapidly.

Because of the higher spectrum efficiency of the CDMA packet-data protocols, the CDMA carriers were under less business pressure than the GSM carriers to upgrade the technology to 3G. They had time to develop and deploy 3G EV-DO, which co-existed with 1xRTT in the same spectrum bands and provided their handset customers an easier migration path to faster performance.

As the demand for mobile data grew, the GSM carriers who chose 2G GSM, needed anew3G technology, called UMTS, Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, a radio access technology that offers greater spectral efficiency and bandwidth to mobile network operators using a Wide-Band CDMA (WCDMA) protocol.

Over time, enhancements to each protocol improved performance, specifically, the introduction of EV-DO Rev. 0 and Rev. A (in the CDMA family) and HSPA, HSPA+, etc. (in the GSM family). The CDMA carriers deployed 3G EV-DO in their coverage footprint quite rapidly, but the GSM carriers have yet to complete their 3G deployment into many markets where they have deployed 2G GSM.

As smartphone and consumer mobile data consumption massively increased, operators needed more spectrum-efficient protocols, such as OFDMA (used in WiMAX and LTE). Since they had fully established their 3G networks, the CDMA carriers began deployment of 4G LTE sooner than the GSM carriers who continued their 3G expansion in multiple technology steps (HSDPA, HSUPA, HSPA, HSPA+, etc.).

For 4G LTE deployments, operators have been usingnewspectrum to avoid disrupting their existing 2G/3G services. Thus, in 2011, AT&T attempted to purchase T-Mobile to acquire additional AWS spectrum at 1700/2100 MHz for their LTE deployment. During the negotiations, AT&Ts Vice President Jean Marsh wrote what might happen if the acquisition was not approved:

First, AT&T would promptly shut down its 2G GSM networka network that currently supports tens of millions of devices [...] that customer base would be required to go purchase new mobile broadband (UMTS) handsets, which are generally more expensive.

As we know, AT&T did not receive approval for the T-Mobile acquisition.

This effectively led to a decision to discontinue 2G GSM GPRS & EDGE technologies as rapidly as practical, to re-use that spectrum for new cellular technologies.

To take the most appropriate action, M2M companies must rapidly develop and execute comprehensive plans, including new products from suppliers, detailed schedules, customer notifications, installer training as needed, recall plans, etc.

In the next blog in this series, well outline the best options for companies as they plan to move to an alternative to 2G GSM connectivity with AT&T.

You can also read theAeris Communicationswhite paper,AT&Ts GSM Sunset, for a comprehensive overview of the issue. This paper also offers a list of options for companies currently using 2G GSM GPRS service from AT&T.

guide to at&t 2g gsm sunset