3G termination requires phone replacement in Japan


Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank carriers have announced the end of their current 3G services. 3G users are affected by the termination but also some other users may be affected as well.

This article explains when the 3G service ends, which users are affected by the termination of the 3G service, and what choice they should make as the 3G service ends.


Why does the 3G service end?

In March 2020, the “5G” service was started by Docomo, KDDI and Softbank in Japan. And the 4th mobile carrier, Rakuten Mobile, who launched 4G service in April this year, started 5G service on 30th September in 2020.

5G stands for 5th Generation. In cellular industry, it was started from 1st Generation for analog telephone system followed by 2nd generation for Digital. Then the service was shifted to data communication from voice call in 3rd generation. After that, high speed communication was realized in 4th generation. Each generation has each characteristics and the specific technology is used for each.

In Japan, even though 5G has been launched, there are still few areas where 5G is available, the majority of users use 4G LTE smartphones and feature phones of the 4th generation, and some users still use 3G smartphones or feature phones.

Currently, Japanese carriers, Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank provide services three cellular technology, 3rd generation CDMA, 4th generation LTE and 5th generation 5G. However carrieres want to reduce the number of carriers and unify them as much as possible because of the cost of developing and maintaining systems when using multiple communication methods.

Especially since the launch of the 5G service this year, carriers want to move their users to 5G as much as possible, and they want to end the old generation “3G” as soon as possible.

Scheduled end of 3G services in Japan and global

The 3G service was launched by Docomo in May 2001 for the first time in the world. Until the 2G service before the start of the 3G service, mobile phones were positioned as a tool for make calls, but with the advent of 3G services, communication speeds became dramatically faster, and mobile phones have been transformed as tools for data communication.

Especially in Japan, carrier J-phone, which was merged by SoftBank, provided the service called “Sha Mail” that sends photos to each user on a feature phone with camera, and this boosted migration to 3G service. After that, a 3G smartphone was released, and the iPhone accelerated the transition to 3G.

19 years have passed since then, and some users are still using 3G, but Docomo, KDDI and  SoftBank have announced the end of their 3G services. By the way, Rakuten Mobile, which launched its service in April of this year, does not use 3G and offers only 4G LTE and 5G.

Each carrier announced the date of 3G termination as follows.

Japanese carrier’s plan

Docomo: March31, 2026
KDDI: End of March 2022
SoftBank: Late January 2024

In Japan, 3G services are planned to end in 2022, but what will happen in global?

In Many European countries, most of carriers launched 5G services earlier than Japan, however in fact,  it has not been so aggressive in terms of upgrading the cellular generation, and the introduction of 3G and 4G has also been well behind the global movement.

Especially since the introduction of 3G and 4G has been fairly slow, there are a considerable number of 2G (GSM) users, which is an earlier old generation, and some countries still use 2G services. As a result, there is no active termination of 3G services at this time because it is not easy to migrate a lot of 2G users to 3G or latter generation.

In the U.S., on the other hand, carriers are actively migrating to 5G, as they are the first in the world to launch 5G services, and they plan to terminate older 3G services accordingly.

Verizon: End of 2020

AT&T: End of 2022

T-mobile: Undecided

In the U.S., carriers are planning to end 3G services earlier than in Japan, and the reason may be that the number of 3G users has decreased as in Japan, but US carriers also want to use the 3G or 4G frequency for 5G. Because the frequency available to carriers is limited and the amount of bandwidth greatly affects the quality of the data download/upload speed, each carrier wants to make effective use of the frequency.


The termination of the 3G service also affects some 4G users!

According to a report by Japanese government “the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications”, there were 32.27 million 3G subscribers in Japan as of March 2020. With the termination of the 3G service, this approximately 30 million users who are using 3G smartphones and feature phones will not be able to use their phones, so it is necessary to change their model to a 4G or 5G terminal. Also, due to the termination of the 3G service, Docomo’s global first mobile internet sevice “i-mode service”, which was only available in 3G, will no more be available.

It is important to note that some of 4G users is also required to replaced their phones as well. 4G uses a high-speed data transmission method called LT and it may seem likely that the end of 3G has no effect, but in fact some 4G terminals use 4G LTE for data communications but 3G for voice call.

When 4G service was started, the service area was limited therefore smartphone corresponding to both 3G and 4G was released. Since data communication is available in both 3G and 4G, it is not a problem if the 3G service ends, however the phones use 3G for voice call therefore they are also affected when the 3G service is terminated.

Current 4G devices use VoLTE of 4G LTE for voice service, but devices that do not support VoLTE require a model change before the end of the 3G service.


3G users have a number of advantages for model change

KDDI is the fastest to terminate the 3G service in Japan and it will happen in about a year and a half. There is relatively still time, but 3G users need to think about what to do before the end of service.

Perhaps many users think of the option of changing to a 4G or 5G device of existing carrier, but it’s also a good idea to understand that there are other options and choose the option that benefits you the most.

Carriers are launching discount campaigns for 3G users in order to make the transition to 4G and 5Gas much as possible, so there is a way to use it to change models cheaply.

For example, KDDI has been running a discount campaign from 2019 to offer a significant discount on terminal charges when changing models from KDDI 3G terminals to 4G or 5G smartphones.

In addition, SoftBank offers a “3G Replacement Campaign” that offers discounts not only for Softbank 3G users but also for users who are eligible for discounts if 3G users of Docomo or KDDI move to SoftBank.

Other option is the transition to cheaper smartphones.

When 3G service was started, there are almost no carriers who offered cheaper cellular service called “MVNO”. However, the number of MVNO in Japan is now more than 1,000 and the MVNO is one of the options for 3G users to select.

3G users tend to  not to use data volume so much, therefore the monthly cost for mobile service would be reduced without change phone number if the user move to MVNO.

KDDI will terminate the 3G service in 2022, two years later by SoftBank, and two years later by Docomo. You may feel that there is still time, but since the smartphone is now indispensable as one of the lifeline, it is good to decide the transition destination carefully.