There’s a big change in mobile networks: What the 3G shutdown means for agtech

April 26, 2024

Our latest blog explores the phase out of 3G and the impact on agtech


There’s a big change in mobile networks: What the 3G shutdown means for agtech

Our latest blog explores the phase out of 3G and the impact on agtech

April 26, 2024

From being able to make a simple phone call, check the markets online or using devices like weather stations, irrigation monitors, or sensors – modern agriculture increasingly relies on connectivity.

So it’s no surprise that the phase out of the 3G network this year is causing some angst, particularly in parts of rural and regional Australia with poor mobile coverage.  

To help us make sense of 3G’s demise and the potential impact on agtech, we’ve enlisted the help of Food Agility chief scientist and digital agriculture expert Professor David Lamb.

Why do we have to say goodbye to 3G?

A man in a blue shirt stares at the camera
Professor David Lamb

In simple terms the 20-year-old 3G network is being shutdown to boost capacity and speeds for 4G and 5G technologies. Vodafone has already switched off its 3G service, Telstra plans to shut down 3G on 30 June and Optus in September.

We’ve known it’s been coming for five years and people have been encouraged to upgrade their phones but Telstra says hundreds of thousands of its customers haven’t taken the hint.

In recent weeks communities have been voicing concern that, despite assurances from the telcos,  the coverage won’t be the same, and that up to a million 4G phones won’t be able to make emergency calls. There’s also fears about what it might mean for on-farm technology that relies on the mobile phone network.

As Professor Lamb explains, the aim is to upgrade existing towers with 3G capability with 4G hardware.

“3G and 4G operate on similar frequencies, however 4G utilises that spectrum more efficiently,” Professor Lamb said. “It’s unlikely that there will be much difference in coverage following the switch, as any penalty in signal strength drop-off will be made up for in performance (better signal to noise ratio).

“But whether all existing 3G towers will be upgraded to 4G in time is another matter. I’d assume this is the case, but this is something to keep an eye on. That’s where blackspots could re-appear.”

If your handset or device relies solely on 3G you won’t be able to connect once the 3G networks are switched off.

“The reality is that if you have an old favourite handset- like a flip phone (that we love), and its 3G only, then you have no choice but to swap it out for another,” Professor Lamb said. “The silver lining is that if you have an old handset, chances are the battery may be getting towards the end of its life anyway, so upgrading might be best for all - cold comfort I admit.”

Why is there concern about some 4G handsets?

Some older 4G-enabled handsets may not be able to make calls once the 3G networks are switched off because of the way those phones are configured. 

Professor Lamb explains that the types of 4G used in Australia is under the category of 'Long-Term-Evolution' (LTE) and the technical term for making calls over LTE networks is 'Voice over LTE' (VoLTE).

“The higher data rate of 4G means VoLTE can make your phone calls sound clearer, thanks in part to a degree of background noise filtering,” Professor Lamb said. “If your mobile device lacks Voice over LTE (VoLTE) technology, even if it uses 4G data, it won’t be able to make voice calls on the network after the 3G shutdown.”

Some devices sold in previous years may not support 4G VoLTE calling. Some may also only support it with the telcos they were purchased with. These are the phones that default to 3G for emergency calls.

Check your device

  • Look for ‘4G’ or ‘5G’ on your screen to see if your device is compatible.
  • Ensure your device network is set to ‘automatic’ and VoLTE is enabled.
  • If your device only shows ‘3G’, then it’s not VoLTE-capable.
  • Check the FAQs of your provider - even go in and see them and hand them your phone and get them to triple check if you are still worried.

A phone call is one thing… but what about my water monitor?

Meanwhile there’s plenty of other devices that run on 3G - think weather stations, monitoring systems, remote control systems, gate actuators, irrigation controllers and soil moisture sensors.

Let's not forget that back in the 3G-only days, voice calls were prioritised over data transmission so in times of ‘conversation congestion’, sometimes the data flow to and from devices would be curtailed. So, it wasn’t all roses then either.

As Professor Lamb explains, the 3G switch off might not mean you have to change everything.

“The basic anatomy of any sensor or device is that you have the thing that does the sensing or moving- the so-called ‘transducer’ or ‘actuator’. This is typically separate to the bit that does the talking to the mobile network- the modem,” he said.

Step one is to ascertain whether you can get away with simply changing from a 3G to a 4G modem without having to change the business end of your device.

“Or maybe it’s time to think about swapping out the old 3G modem with another communications mode- like LORA back to your farmhouse, which can then connect to the internet via whatever you are using in your farmhouse or office.”

Professor Lamb recommends discussing it with your equipment provider, if the modem is really integrated into the device hardware, then you may need to swap out the whole kit and caboodle.

When, if ever, can we rely on buying something that will last?

Professor Lamb said the fact that some people are being forced to swap out old technology because of an external factor raises the question about legacy tech.

“The reality is of course that the more sophisticated any technology gets the shorter its shelf -life is,” Professor Lamb said.

“We’ve had 3G since 2003, 4G is here, we have 5G being deployed as we speak and the definitions for 6G are already being developed. Modems and the devices we use are also getting more sophisticated and can handle more than one option - you’ll note our smart phones are compatible with 3G, 4G and 5G so interoperability comes with sophistication too.

“One of my local farmer contacts quipped to me along the lines of ‘one advantage of getting into something early is that you get to spend more time using it before it gets redundant'.”

Professor Lamb’s final word, “Don’t let the fear of redundancy stop you trying something new.”

You can read more about the work of Food Agility CRC in farm-wide WiFi connectivity and remote sensing on our website.

The National Farmers Federation is hosting a free webinar on Tuesday 30 April to help people understand what the shutdown means. Find out more.

Non-project publications

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