Alarms & Monitoring: Planning for the 2G Sunset

Feb. 6, 2014
This is the beginning of the end for 2G — here's what you need to know

In the hectic, day-to-day routine of your busy security installation and monitoring business, a deadline some three years in the future might seem like light years away. So worrying about the fact that, come New Year’s Day in 2017, 2G (GPRS) service from wireless carrier AT&T will not be available for alarm communications, may not be the most immediate priority for your alarm company today — as more near-term issues seem to always take precedence.

So how concerned should you really be? If you have not started to think about your conversion strategy from 2G, the time to start is now. With the actual date seemingly far in the future, it is easy to have a false sense of security; however, the impacts of the pending sunset are becoming more apparent with each passing day. Many dealers cannot afford to wait to address the 2G sunset or they may be faced with too many systems to switch over and not enough time/resources to complete them before service to customers is impacted.

The End of 2G and its Impact

AT&T is by far the largest U.S. carrier relied on by alarm system communicators for central station communications. The company reported in mid 2012 that it would completely discontinue service on its 2G (GSM/GPRS/EDGE) network by the end of 2016. Though the announcement gave a definitive end to 2G service, many unanswered questions still remain in terms of how and when the carrier will actually execute their plans. With reprovisioning of the spectrum away from 2G already under way, some 2G products in the field today are already experiencing connectivity issues, and many areas are seeing reduced capacity on the 2G network.

By the end of last year, carriers in some areas had already eliminated 2G coverage on their 850 or 1900 MHz bands, which can negatively impact in-building, fixed-location cellular devices such as alarm communicators. Reduced capacity on these same bands could also result in delays connecting to the network based on the number of users already connected. Carriers have also issued service discontinuation notices of the 1900 MHz band from 2G (and 3G/4G) in New York City.

Some municipalities have already anecdotally reported that 2G service has all but disappeared, thanks to ongoing reallocations of available spectrum from 2G to the newer technologies, such as 3G/4G and 4G LTE.

The reality of the situation is that a majority of the more than four to five million devices already installed in the field are going to need to be upgraded between now and the moment that the 2G network is taken down. Depending on a dealer’s individual business and percentage of their accounts which have cellular, impacts on total account portfolios can vary widely — with as much as 50 percent of total accounts affected, to as low as ten percent of a dealer’s portfolio, if cellular is a relatively new offering and/or 3G communicators were originally installed.
Regardless of how many 2G devices your alarm company maintains — or your organization uses for alarm communications —– do not be fooled into thinking that the time to begin upgrading is still some years in the future.

Considerations for Conversions

Since the beginning of the sunset discussion, the alarm industry has debated on which technology to move forward with. For devices that will continue to use AT&T, 3G (HSPA) and 4G (HSPA) technology are the most prevalent from a geographic scale. These also have the ability to ‘fall back’ to the existing 2G network in the event of 3G/4G maintenance or unscheduled outage to leverage 2G through its end-of-life. Neither of these should be confused with newer 4G LTE technology, which is being heavily marketed in most major markets as the answer to U.S. consumers’ insatiable appetites for network speed and availability.

While 4G has higher transmission speeds compared to 3G, many in the industry believe that the transmission capabilities of 3G are more than adequate for alarm transmission as well as other machine-to-machine (M2M) applications. Furthermore, adding more expensive 4G technology to alarm communicators would burden the product with pricy components that do not realistically improve communications or performance. The current 2G network is more than capable of supporting the needs of existing alarm communicators and the need to change to 3G is primarily driven by the fact that the carriers are migrating away from 2G.

While customers will see improvements due to the increased throughput for devices where larger amounts of data are used (i.e. uploading/downloading over cellular) the speed is not critical — most data transmissions are smaller in size than a basic email. Most important to the debate is the expected life cycle, and the North American carriers themselves project that 3G/4G (HSPA/HSPA+) technology will share a common lifespan as the carrier’s high volume users will continue to migrate the 4G LTE network as it expands across the country.

Several manufacturers are offering devices that use CDMA technology, which is, in essence, a switch from 2G GPRS technology to 2G CDMA or 1xRTT, which is expected to offer a lifecycle similar to 3G/4G offerings.

Planning a Migration Strategy

With ongoing preparations by the carriers to reallocate bandwidth from the 2G network to support expansions of 3G/4G service, the usefulness of 2G lessens with each passing day.

To aid in the upgrades, manufacturers are offering a wide range of communicator swap-out programs that offer 3G replacements for 2G communicators, with a variety of options, including reduced or equivalent 2G pricing for 3G communicators. Others offer a variety of rebates, account credits or upgrade incentives on related equipment.

Make sure to review your options carefully and choose a conversion program that provides the path away from 2G that best fits your business and allows for the least disruption in service as the carriers transition away from older technology.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of communicating to your customers the need to upgrade their alarm system’s communicator — and what it means to them.

Many dealers are bundling free upgrades from 2G with extensions or renewals of monitoring contracts to help offset the cost and improve the customer experience. Other dealers are planning to swap out the 2G equipment in conjunction with service calls on other items, avoiding the additional expense of a separate truck roll.

Although the U.S. market is one of the first in which the 2G sunset is booked on the calendar, other major carriers around the world are expected to announce formal plans for their 2G migration, and have already reduced or stopped their investment in the 2G network. For example, Australia has already begun its 2G phaseout, and areas like Mexico City are grappling with severe congestion issues on 2G due to reduced capacity in that market. As the U.S. security market continues its transition, a solid plan can help alleviate many of the expected growing pains associated with the sunset.

Dwayne Salsman ([email protected]) is Product Manager, Alternate Communicators & C24 Communications for Tyco Security Products. To request more information about the company, please visit