The rise and fall and rise of operator mobile voice

Those of us who were working in a major city during the eighties will probably also remember those early mobile phones -- the ones that were so big they required a suitcase to carry the device and charger. I still have fond memories of my first mobile phone -- a Nokia, since you ask -- although "all" I could do was phone people up (even texting wasn't yet available across all networks at the time).

The noughties saw the mobile phone market stumble through early efforts at mobile data. I vaguely recall press events on GPRS, i-mode in the UK, and early 3G launches. Since then, mobile data has been turbo-charged with LTE and now LTE Advanced networks, with higher data speeds promised almost on a monthly basis.

For a long time, it was all about data, but now mobile voice is firmly back on operator agendas as they seek to retrieve control of what was once their former sole domain. Our recent special report on Wi-Fi calling, for example, explored some of the approaches, from dialler-integrated Wi-Fi calling through to downloadable apps such as Three InTouch and Telefonica's TU Go service.

Mobile operators are also clearly following the path towards voice over LTE (VoLTE), and some services have already been launched in Europe. At the same time, it will be even more important to get VoLTE right from the start: operators including EE said they intend to delay launching VoLTE until they are assured that the service has reached minimum quality levels.

In Africa, some newer operators are also taking a back-to-front approach with mobile voice compared with the more established European operators. Smile Telecom, which first started its operations with data-only 4G dongle services, this week launched its first VoLTE service in Uganda. Again, the launch was slightly delayed as the company wanted to ensure a very good user experience.

The strategy certainly seems to be that operators roll out some form of Wi-Fi calling as soon as they can in order to stem the use of over-the-top voice services. When it comes to VoLTE, the stakes are much higher. If an operator were to launch too early -- for example if their 4G coverage is insufficient or if dropped calls have not yet reached the lowest possible level -- users may quickly give up trying to use the new functionality. That's certainly something that operators cannot afford to happen.--Anne