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The 3G switch-off: How to be prepared as a surveyor

If you have been following the news lately, you’ll find that all mobile operators within the UK (and around the world) plan to switch off 3G technology (3G switch-off) in order to fully commit to newer, more efficient technologies such as 4G and 5G.

Most surveying instruments will have controllers & receivers that connect to some sort of service through a mobile operator. For example, when using VRS, corrections are typically downloaded from a subscription service through the internet connection on a mobile SIM card.

This trend is expected to cause inconvenience and impact geospatial services. In this article, I aim to help you prepare for this and, hopefully, ease your mind when it comes to any business disruptions this will cause.

When is the 3G switch-off happening?

In 2021 an agreement was made between the UK government and the UK’s mobile providers to switch off 3G (and 2G) services and each operator is having different timeframes for this process.

Logos of UK Network Operators

The operators (and the associated Mobile Virtual Network Operators) will be affected differently and have different 3G switch-off dates.

O2 3G switch-off

Currently, O2 is the only network running 3G services in the foreseeable future (possibly up to 2025 and beyond. O2 have not provided any date for 3G switch-off, with services continuing as normal.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) running on O2 are: Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile, giffgaff, Extreme Connect, KC Mobile and Virgin Mobile (Virgin Mobile will close by December 2023 – clients will be migrated to O2).

EE 3G switch-off

EE will start the switch-off in Warrington, UK on the 18th of June 2023, with a widespread switch-off planned in early 2024.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) running on EE are: Lycamobile, Truphone, 1pMobile, BT Mobile, CMLink, Ecotalk, Now Mobile, The Phone Co-op, Utility Warehouse / Telecom Plus and Plusnet Mobile (due to close down in 2023).

Vodafone 3G switch-off

Vodafone have already started shutting down the 3G network in 2023 in Hull, Oxford and Greater London, with a complete switch-off by the end of the year.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) running on Vodafone are: Asda Mobile, Lebara, Talkmobile and VOXI.

Three 3G switch-off

Three switch-off will be done in phases over the next 2 years, with plans to complete by the end of 2024.

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) running on Vodafone are: FreedomPop, iD Mobile, SMARTY and Superdrug Mobile.

Survey devices affected by the 3G switch-off

Nearly all modern survey instruments and controllers are connected to the internet and will be affected in one way or another. Depending on the type of device, you will have different solutions. Below is a list of surveying instruments that are most likely to be affected by the 3G switch-off.

Trimble devices

When it comes to Trimble instruments, the 3G switch-off will affect controllers and GNSS Receivers.

  • Trimble controllers affected by the 3G switch-off are: TSC3, TSC5, TSC7, T7, T10, T100, TDC600
  • Trimble GNSS receivers affected by the 3G switch-off are: Trimble R10, R12, R12i and R750.
Device2G compatible4G compatibleWiFi connectivity
T10NoYes (T10 4G model)Yes
T100NoYes (T100 4G model)Yes
R12 / R12iYesNoYes
List of common Trimble Survey Devices and their network compatibility

Leica devices

Devices that use the Network RTK services such as HxGN SmartNet are main ones that will be affected, as these most commonly use 3G signal for data transfer, and devices that use a 3.5G or 3.75G modem (such as the Leica CS20).

In readiness for the 3G switch off, since 2015, Leica Geosystems offer LTE (4G) modems in GNSS receivers and controllers and tablets.

Device2G compatible4G compatibleWiFi connectivity
GS10External ModemNoNo
GS07 / GS16External ModemNoNo
GS18 / GS18 T / GS18 INoYesNo
List of common Leica Survey Devices and their network compatibility

Topcon devices

There are currently a number of Topcon products in use that rely on the 3G network for functions such as RTK corrections and connecting to cloud services for upload and download of files.

If you have any of the following, expect some disruption in your workflow caused by the 3G switch-off:

GNSS Rovers:

  • HiPer V
  • HiPer II
  • HiPer SR Cell

GNSS Receivers:

  • GR-3
  • NET-G5
  • GR-5
  • GRS-1

Field Books:

  • Tesla RTK+
  • FC-500 geo
  • Tesla
  • FC-200/FC-250

Other devices:

  • All Machine Rover Boxes

You can read more in Topcon’s official announcement regarding the 3G switch-off.

Device2G compatible4G compatibleWiFi connectivity
FC-5000NoYes (Optional)Yes
FC-500NoYes (Optional)Yes
Tesla / Tesla RTKYesNoYes
FC-200 / FC-250NoNoYes (Optional) / Yes
HiPer II / HiPer V
HiPer SR Cell
List of common Topcon Survey Devices and their network compatibility

Other manufacturers

As there is a wide range of surveying equipment manufacturers, it would be impractical to list them all here, especially since not all have full specifications listed or easily identifiable.

If your equipment wasn’t in the list above, check with your dealer or survey equipment manufacturer for advice.

Be prepared for the 3G switch-off

Wooden blocks spelling: Success favours the prepared

If you are using a survey device which is being affected by the 3G switch-off, how can you prepare for it, without affecting your work?

Rollover to 2G

Most devices support 2G networks and should do the rollover to a 2G signal automatically, when the 3G switch-off happens. However, this will only be an option for services where a small amount of data is transferred.

The 2G network was not designed for the amount of bandwidth required nowadays. And, once a lot of devices (not just survey equipment) fall back to 2G signal, the connectivity will most likely become unreliable due to network congestion.

Ultimately, 2G networks are planned to switch-off by 2033, so this isn’t a very long term solution.

Upgrade to 4G

A lot of surveying equipment will have been designed with 4G modems capable of using better network connectivity (e.g Trimble TSC5). Therefore your device should still work as expected after the 3G switch-off.

Some will have an option to upgrade to an external modem (Topcon AGI-4 RTK NTRIP Receiver) and will require you to contact your dealer or equipment manufacturer for an upgrade.

The upgrade to a 4G signal is probably one of the safest and long term solutions.

WiFi backup

If your device isn’t 4G compatible or you want peace-of-mind that 2G performance won’t affect your workflow there is a third option.

Mobile Phone with WiFi symbol on screen representing a Hotspot

You can have a dedicated, modern 4G or 5G capable mobile phone handset or mobile WiFi router alongside the controller or tablet in the field to share a personal hotspot with which can be used for the mobile internet connection. This is obviously dependent on your device’s capability to connect to a has WiFi network (check datasheet or ask manufacturer).

Have the correct SIM card

You should also check your device’s SIM card to make sure it’s 4G capable and your network coverage. Some dealers will provide multinetwork SIM cards that offer the best possible coverage across all networks.

IF you’re not with one of the big 4 mobile network operators, you can check the MVNOs list in the UK in order to determine your SIM card’s capabilities (2G, 3G, 4G, 5G)

Final thoughts

The 3G switch-off is an expected way forward in using newer and more efficient technologies. Transitioning is difficult, but not impossible as long as you are prepared.

Disclaimer: Whilst a lot of time and care was taken researching for this article (going through many articles and instrument datasheets), some mistakes might have slipped through regarding some devices. Contact your dealer or equipment manufacturer if in doubt of your device’s capabilities.

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