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3G Shut Down: Millions of Maxis & Celcom 4G customers may need 2G to make Calls

As the Government decided to retire the 3G networks in Malaysia, gradually at the end of 2021, millions of Maxis and Celcom Axiata customers may need to rely on 2G networks to make/receive voice calls.

A couple weeks ago, the Malaysia Government announced its ambitious Jalinan Digital Negara Plan (JENDELA), to improve the digital infrastructure of the country, in phases from 2020 to 2025, targeting 100% 4G coverage and 5G speeds over 100Mbps.

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At the time of writing, Maxis and Celcom are the only major Telcos in the country (among 6 Telcos) that have yet to deploy Voice over LTE (VoLTE) service for all customers. VoLTE is a major feature of 4G LTE and it allows voice calls to be made over 4G LTE networks, on compatible 4G smartphones.

Currently, millions of 4G mobile customers on Maxis and Celcom can only make or receive traditional voice calls on 3G and 2G networks, but not on 4G (a process called circuit-switched fallback). With the retirement of 3G networks in Malaysia at the end of 2021, these customers will need to depend on 2G networks to make/receive calls as Celcom and Maxis have yet to enable VoLTE for all customers.

Right now on 3G, certain operators in Malaysia have enabled “HD Voice” calls, allowing customers to enjoy better voice call quality compared to a call via 2G. Following the sunset of 3G networks, these customers may not enjoy the same “HD” call quality on 2G networks.

To date, Digi and U Mobile have enabled VoLTE for all customers, including another service called VoWiFi (Voice over Wifi). VoWiFi allows Digi and U Mobile customers to make voice calls over any Wifi networks, especially in areas without any mobile coverage, on compatible smartphones. YTL’s Yes and Telekom Malaysia’s Unifi Mobile have enabled VoLTE since day 1 of launching their 4G LTE networks.

VoLTE is said to offer improved voice call quality and faster call set up time. Among the smartphone that supports VoLTE include iPhone 6 and above models, a long list of Samsung, Huawei, Vivo smartphones including the Galaxy/nova/Mate/Honor/V/Y series and Oppo, among others.

As revealed by JENDELA, the shut down of 3G networks in Malaysia will allow the mobile operators in the country to migrate their 3G spectrum to 4G and further improve the 4G network experience for customers. At the moment, 3G networks in Malaysia are generally deployed on the 900Mhz and 2100Mhz bands. However a huge part of these network spectrum are already being used for 4G networks.

The major 4G networks in the country runs on the 900Mhz, 1800Mhz, 2100Mhz and 2600Mhz bands. Meanwhile, 2G networks are deployed on 900Mhz and 1800Mhz bands, with minimum spectrum utilisation.

Malaysia is among a limited countries around the world that have decided to shut down its 3G networks while maintaining 2G. Despite 2G technology are already outdated and considered insecure by researchers, it still offers the best mobile coverage in the country. The rest of the world including Singapore, New Zealand and Australia have shut down 2G networks in favor of 3G and 4G technology.

Countries that have scheduled the shut down 3G networks include mobile operators in Japan (2024-2026), Australia (2024), Singapore (2025 & beyond).

According to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), 2G coverage in Malaysia currently stood at 96.7% in populated areas, 3G at 95.3% and 4G LTE coverage at 91.8%. Celcom Axiata said it has a 98% 2G coverage nationwide.

At the current state of the mobile network coverage in Malaysia, up to 4.9% Malaysians may not be able to enjoy proper 4G mobile Internet coverage with the shut down of 3G networks, if data from MCMC were to be believed. The JENDELA plan from the Government also did not reveal on the number of mobile subscribers that may be affected with the retirement of 3G networks at the end of 2021.

A Celcom Axiata spokesperson told MalaysianWireless that they “will be working closely with Industry players, together with MCMC to ensure smooth transition between 3G and 4G networks, and with minimal impacts to all Malaysians.”

“As a safety net, 2G network will still be maintained to ensure customers are able to make calls and SMS seamlessly, whenever 4G is inaccessible,”

Celcom said its iPhone postpaid customers have access to 4G VoLTE services. “For the time being, Celcom VoLTE is already available to all Celcom Mobile Postpaid plan customers using iPhone 6s models and above. Gradually, more smartphones & devices shall be made eligible for Celcom VoLTE. ”

The Telco did not say when it will enable VoLTE services for all its 4G LTE customers, despite a trial for VoLTE was completed in 2016.

At the end of June 2020, Celcom Axiata had 8.03 million mobile subscriptions, including 5.1 million prepaid subscribers. About 80.8% of Celcom mobile subscribers are Internet users, believed to be mainly 4G subscribers.

When asked about its 4G coverage plans and target in 2021, Celcom did not reveal further details however it said, “At the moment, we are deeply focused on implementing 4G network upgrading for 2020, while concurrently planning more 4G upgrades for 2021. We will be able to share the target soon.”

Over the 11,500 sites that Celcom already has nationwide, about 87% are equipped with 4G base stations, it said. MalaysianWireless notes that Celcom 4G LTE and 4G LTE-A human population coverage remains unchanged at 93% and 81% respectively, since March 2019.

On the other hand, Maxis did not share more details on questions related to its 3G network shut down and how it will affect customers. The Telco also did not immediately say when it will enable VoLTE for all customers and its 4G network plans for 2021.

In a reply to a couple of questions from MalaysianWireless, Maxis responded with a very short statement as below:

“Maxis together with the industry and regulator are collectively involved in the planning and execution of JENDELA, and are aligned with its aspirations as announced by the Government.

The gradual 3G shutdown plan will be done with a customer first mindset. We are assessing our network coverage and potential service impact to our customers.

Rest assured, we will look at all aspects of our voice and data services and work on a plan to mitigate the impact to our customers. In any case, the 3G sunset plans as well as 4G coverage extension to rural & remote areas will be industry wide collaboration together with MCMC. Meanwhile, we will be communicating our progress and readiness on VoLTE services very soon.”

Maxis reported 11.73 million mobile subscriptions as of June 2020, including 8.4 million mobile Internet users, believed to be mainly on its 4G network. Over a year ago, Maxis revealed that its 4G LTE human population coverage was at 93%, unchanged since the end of 2018. Maxis claims to have 9,000 coverage sites nationwide in 2019 but has not provided any further update in its latest financial quarterly reports in 2020.

Maxis and Celcom don’t disclose the number of their active subscribers on different networks- 2G, 3G, 4G.

Both Telcos may have valid reasons for not enabling VoLTE in their networks. The implementation of VoLTE can be associated with many technical challenges, according to the GSMA in a report.

“Essentially, VoLTE is a data service. However, in contrast to typical best-effort IP data traffic that can be reduced if the link is of low quality, VoLTE requires a guaranteed data rate.

The network responds to these situations by allocating more capacity resources to the VoLTE call, which may cause the overall quality of the network to degrade. As such, LTE radio access networks (RAN) may need to be re-optimised to provide the required VoLTE service guarantees. Further complications arise if the LTE coverage is not continuous. This may lead to excessive handovers to 2G/3G, degraded voice service and potentially to dropped calls.

Depending on the existing infrastructure, VoLTE may require substantial investment in the core network, including an IP multimedia subsystem (IMS). Many functionalities in the core have to undergo extensive optimisation and trials before service launch.

Given the declining voice revenues and the associated challenges and investments, many operators do not see the benefit of an early VoLTE deployment.”

As of August 2019, the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) estimated that 262 mobile network operators had launched or were investing in VoLTE, representing approximately 26% of operators worldwide. However, the number of VoLTE launches has been steadily increasing since 2016.

About Kugan

Kugan is the founder of MalaysianWireless. He has been observing the mobile industry since 2003. Connect with him on Twitter: @scamboy