First UK operator to give firm date for 4G voice, as it follows a growing trend to roll out both IP-based services in parallel
At long last the era of circuit-switched voice is coming to a slow end, and carriers are accelerating their plans to roll out Voice over LTE, increasingly as a companion strategy with Voice over WiFi.
Vodafone UK is the latest example, announcing that it will launch both services this summer. It has been testing VoLTE at its headquarters since August and will now conduct customer trials before the summer. It said the WiFi Calling offering will provide coverage in rural locations and also improve indoor call quality in some areas.
The parallel approach to voice services shows mobile operators harnessing WiFi to improve coverage and capacity, as they have already done for data in many cases. VoWiFi, or WiFi Calling, was initially seen as a stepping stone to full 4G voice, but since it requires IMS – like VoLTE – many MNOs plan to deploy the two systems virtually in tandem. That will enable them to roll out VoLTE at their own pace and deliver IMS-based IP services even where they do not have LTE built out, or where devices are scarce.
The largest UK operator, EE, also plans to launch VoLTE and WiFi Calling this year, although the UK players, like many of their European counterparts, have been relatively cautious about moving to IP voice. The first VoLTE services went live in Korea and the US in August 2012 and, according to the GSA, there are now commercial services in Denmark, Hong Kong, Japan, Romania and Singapore, plus many trials, with 80 carriers in 42 countries investing in VoLTE at this stage.
An important factor in increased enthusiasm has been device support – Apple gave WiFi Calling a significant boost when it introduced the technology to the iPhone 5, and the new iPhone 6 supports VoLTE. According to Marc Bendadoun, VP of Tektronix Communications’ RAN unit, this has had a marked effect. “Since the launch of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, 3G voice calls made on iOS devices across US networks have declined. 3G voice calling among iPhone 6 users is now one-quarter of that on previous iPhone models,” he said. “We anticipate this trend to continue as more VoLTE compatible devices become available.”
The Samsung Galaxy S6 and new Microsoft Lumia models are also among the devices coming to market with VoWiFi support – EE said it will launch the WiFi service on the new Lumia 640 on April 7 and the S6 on April 10.
The other UK operators, 3UK and Telefonica O2, also offer VoWiFi via the 3 inTouch and Tu Go apps, respectively. Only Vodafone has so far given a firm date for VoLTE launch.