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Vulnerable people could get discounts upgrading to 4G-capable phones

Written by: Rebecca Goodman
Telecom firms must provide help and guidance during the little known 3G switch-off, which could include a discount for vulnerable customers required to upgrade to a 4G-capable handset, Ofcom suggests.

The 3G network which is now 20 years old, along with the earlier 2G service, will be phased out as the Government set a deadline of 2033 for the networks to be turned off completely.

Providers are instead focusing on improving the faster 4G and 5G networks.

However, recent research from Uswitch revealed that half of Brits are unaware it will be switched off, as early as this month for some customers.

Vodafone (including Voxi, Virgin Mobile, Asda Mobile, Lebara Mobile and TalkMobile) is set to decommission 3G services by the end of the year, but the process will start with Plymouth and Basingstoke this month.

EE and Three expect to switch off their 3G networks in 2024.

While the watchdog Ofcom does not have a formal role in the switch off process, it has set out its expectations in terms of how providers treat customers.

Customers must be able to access the services they need

The majority of people have mobile phones that can access the 4G network so they won’t be impacted by the 2G or 3G switch off.

But for those with older devices, including mobile handsets, telecare alarms and payment terminals, they will need to replace or update them.

Ofcom has published the following four key expectations it expects providers to follow during the switch off.

1) No reduction in coverage

EE, Three and Vodafone have committed to offering an equivalent level of coverage after the 3G and subsequent 2G switch-off, with areas currently reliant on these networks being upgraded to 4G ahead of switch-off.

Ofcom expects Virgin Media O2 (which has yet to set a date for its 3G switch-off) to make a similar pledge. Customers should not experience a reduction in coverage as a result.

2) 4G-capable handset information in contracts

Where possible, mobile providers should explain in their contracts and summary when the service being purchased will no longer work because of the switch-off and that the customer will need a 4G-capable handset after that date.

3) Possible discounts for replacement handsets

Where customers need to replace or update their handset, mobile operators should provide a minimum of three to six months’ notice of the steps they need to take. Vulnerable customers will need to be given additional support which might include offering discounts on replacement handsets.

4) Notice periods

Other services that rely on mobile networks such as telecare alarms and payment terminals, will need a longer notice period. Ofcom said it expects mobile providers to make every effort to identify these services, helping to raise awareness so that relevant suppliers have sufficient time to update their devices and consumers do not lose access to vital services.

Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s director of connectivity, said: “In the next few years, older mobile networks will gradually be switched-off to make way for faster, more reliable services.

“But some people will need help upgrading their devices during this process. So we’ve told mobile networks what they should do to make sure support is available to those who need it.”

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