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February 11, 2020 3:45 PM, EST

Perspective: Preparing for the 3G Sunset

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A major technology switch that could affect the transportation industry is right around the corner: the 3G wireless network sunset.

The 3G network sunset has to do with capacity and bandwidth. There is a limited amount of spectrum available on wireless networks. As wireless carriers want to introduce new services and networks, they have to reuse some of their spectrum to do so.

U.S. wireless carriers began to repurpose older 2G and 3G CDMA and GSM networks — the two global networks that all carriers use to convert data from phones into radio waves — in 2019, starting with Verizon and other carriers following suit in 2020 and beyond. AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers; Verizon and Sprint are CDMA carriers. The reliability of these networks likely will begin to degrade well before they are shut off for good.

Think of it like an abandoned road: At first, you might still be able to access it, but over time, the lack of maintenance and repair make it impossible to use. We expect the sunset will happen gradually, with providers cutting back coverage in lower volume areas, resulting in coverage gaps prior to full network shutdown. A gradual sunset process may pose significant challenges to fleets that rely on 3G networks to communicate with drivers and vehicles, as well as to collect important data related to fleet safety, compliance and overall performance.

John Binder

Binder

The network sunset impacts any 3G-powered device, including smartphones and tablets, regardless of the vendor or manufacturer. If your fleet owns any of the estimated 7.5 million internet of things devices such as ELDs running on the 3G network, you already may have begun to see a degradation or “sunset” in coverage. This degradation eventually will render these devices obsolete, with 3G shutdown dates occurring over the next few years.

Since trucks rely on near-constant network connectivity with the back office for their day-to-day operations, the 3G network sunset will be a big challenge. Fleets will need to replace equipment to ensure they can continue safely and efficiently operating.

Companies that still are operating on 3G networks need to consider making this switch. The good news: 4G LTE networks are capable of providing enhanced connectivity in ways that 3G networks never could. LTE networks are capable of transferring data 10 times faster than older CDMA and GSM networks — meaning faster logins, better response times and an enhanced user experience. LTE (often called 4G LTE) is now the current network technology and considered the next evolutionary step from the GSM and CDMA standards. The 4G designation refers to the fourth generation of consumer networking technology.

LTE connectivity gives fleets the ability to more quickly collect data and makes devices run faster and more reliably than ever before. This enhanced connectivity can enable quicker decision-making when a driver is on duty and provides more options to drivers who want to stay connected and communicate during off-duty time.

In part two of a two-part exploration of autonomous technology today, our latest RoadSigns podcast revisits conversations with Chuck Price of TuSimple and Ognen Stojanovski of Pronto.ai. Hear them discuss a palatable Level 2 version of trucking autonomy. Listen to a snippet above, and to hear the full episode, go to RoadSigns.TTNews.com.

However, adoption of LTE-capable devices has lagged in the trucking industry as the recent focus on ELD mandate compliance has taken a higher priority. Fleets may be tempted to wait as long as possible to update their hardware, at the detriment to the driver experience and ability to take advantage of the solutions a higher-speed connection enables.

4G networks are predicted to provide high-quality connectivity until at least 2030. And while there is a lot of buzz around 5G, it still is in its infancy and won’t be widely available and viable in the commercial transportation industry for several years.

Until 5G makes its way into transportation, 4G LTE also poses great opportunities for the industry to increase the capacity and speed of wireless data networks. As 3G networks degrade, their allotted spectrum will be moved to LTE networks to expand the network’s capacity. The 4G LTE network is the most widely available nationwide network and continues the path to higher bandwidth and lower latency. Bandwidth determines how fast data can be transferred over time — it’s the amount of data that can be transferred per second, and latency is delay — how long it takes data to travel between its source and destination.

If you are not sure if your fleet is operating with 4G LTE devices, contact your mobility provider as soon as possible to ensure your company is prepared. Questions to ask your provider may include: What is your most advanced network currently available? What data speed does your device provide? Does the device provide a seamless experience across North America? Are you engaged to continually evolve your devices to harness the latest advancements in wireless networks?

Although the 3G network sunset poses a new challenge for the industry, the high speeds and low latency of the next generations of networks will enable new capabilities and usher in the future of transportation and logistics technology.

John Binder is the director of wireless operations at Trimble Transportation.

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