Summary:

Both TeleGeography and Cisco are pegging 2013 as the year that global 2G connections stopped growing globally, giving way to newer 3G and 4G devices. But it will be a long path toward obsolescence.

Forget cell phones, carriers need tablet plans.

For all of the 3G and LTE activity we’ve seen around the world in the last decade, 2G has proven to be a very resilient technology. The vast majority of the world’s mobile phones are still linked to plain old GSM and CDMA networks, but in 2013 we hit a tipping point. 2G’s growth stopped and began what will surely be a grinding decade-long decline into obsolescence.

This figure from TeleGeography (which creates the always fascinating annual map of the world’s submarine internet infrastructure) shows that 2G subscriptions leveled off in 2011 and 2012 at around 5 billion, but in 2013 2G exhibited its first drop, falling 3 percent to 4.8 billion total connections.

TeleGeography 2G decline

Don’t try to pawn off your old talk-and-text phone as an antique just yet, though. 2G still has plenty of life left. According to TeleGeography, there will still be 3.5 billion connections in 2018, roughly the same amount of 3G connections.

Cisco Systems today released its comprehensive Visual Networking Index of global mobile traffic patterns, and its figures also shows 2G beginning its long decline in 2013 after dominating the world with 68 percent of all connections. Cisco puts the crossover point between 2G and 3G much earlier — sometime between 2015 and 2016 when both 2G and 3G devices will have about 46 percent market share and LTE devices will make up the remaining 8 percent.

Cisco VNI 2014 subscription type

So why is 2G sticking around so long? Part of the reason is that much of the world is still using mobile phones as actual phones, and there are really no technologies better optimized for making voice calls than GSM and CDMA. 2G is also cheap. Whenever a new generation of mobile technology emerges, the previous generation of gear, chips and devices is discounted. In emerging markets carriers are taking advantage of GSM’s low costs to build big networks and put cheap phones in the populace’s hands.

And just because many parts of the world are limited to 2G connections, it doesn’t mean carriers and developers aren’t making the most of the meager voice, SMS and slower-than-dial-up data speeds they have at their disposal. SafariCom has built a veritable mobile financial services empire in East Africa using SMS and pokey GPRS speeds. Here in the so-called advanced western world, the only thing I can really buy in a store with my $650 LTE-connected smartphone is a cup of Starbucks coffee.

2G is going to stick around for awhile as did ‘1G” analog networks before them. Those 2G networks aren’t just highly useful to the people who use them, but it also takes a long time for new mobile technologies to reach a global critical mass. Just look at Cisco’s numbers. In 2018 – eights years after LTE first launched – Cisco expects LTE connections to account for just 15 percent of total subscriptions.

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