Verizon's support for Wi-Fi calling seen as validation of technology

With Verizon's (NYSE: VZ) announcement this week that it will make Wi-Fi calling available via software updates to Samsung Galaxy S 6 and S 6 Edge devices -- with support for more Android and iOS devices coming early next year -- the Wi-Fi calling community is understandably glad to hear one of the last holdouts is supporting the service.

The move follows an earlier one where the nation's largest carrier enabled Wi-Fi calling on newer iPhones via a messaging app, and it's significant given that the company's leadership previously said Wi-Fi calling wasn't a top priority because it built an extensive voice platform. However, Wi-Fi calling may be the only or best option for some customers whose home or office isn't getting optimal cellular coverage.

Wi-Fi advocates say Verizon's latest announcement also adds to the significant momentum that has already built behind Wi-Fi calling services from a carrier community keen to address the threat from popular OTT communications offerings. "The cellular network cannot deliver ubiquitous indoor coverage and carriers are becoming increasingly dependent on Wi-Fi as an alternative means of delivering the connectivity their customers require, so we expect this momentum will continue to build," Dave Fraser, CEO of Wi-Fi platform provider Devicescape, told FierceWirelessTech.

Shane Buckley, CEO of Wi-Fi hardware and software provider Xirrus, said he wasn't surprised by Verizon's move and noted that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) introduced Wi-Fi calling in iOS 8 for T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) customers and made it a standard feature in iOS 9. "Consumer interest in this capability is incredibly high and therefore all carriers have been working hard to support this feature," he said, noting that AT&T (NYSE: T) enabled support for Wi-Fi calling after obtaining a waiver from the FCC in October. Shortly afterward, Verizon applied for (and received) the same waiver from the FCC.

"Support for Wi-Fi calling by Verizon is further validation of the importance of Wi-Fi to customers," Buckley said, adding that video will further drive demands in co ming years. 

Going into 2016, "there's certainly a lot of momentum moving in the market," said Ken Kolderup, CMO of Taqua, a supplier of mobile and fixed network core networking IP convergence systems and applications to operators around the world. Sprint (NYSE: S), for example, uses Taqua's voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi) solution.

Wi-Fi advocates say smartphone users simply want the best connection they can get, whether for voice calls, video, browsing or social media, requiring a blend of cellular and Wi-Fi.

But as Accenture Digital Senior Manager Phillip Redman points out, Wi-Fi calling is only part of the deal. Adding handoff to cellular networks without having to disconnect the call or to private corporate networks increases the usefulness and ties the networks together. Engineers at Republic Wireless, for example, have worked for years on refining the handoffs between Wi-Fi and cellular networks. 

Kolderup said there are tradeoffs for carriers to doing handovers. "At the end of the day, if you decide you want to do handover, the downside is you need to shrink the coverage range of Wi-Fi" because you need a buffer range for the handover process. In some places, it might hand over to a poorer connection than was available via Wi-Fi, so getting the system to make the right call at the right time is an issue. "Really a very small percentage of calls really need to do handover," he said. "99 percent of calls, you're doing in one location," and not walking away from an access point to the wide area cellular network.

Besides handing over between VoLTE and Wi-Fi, Taqua supports the ability to hand over to 2G or 3G if the operator desires to offer that. Handover is not limited to VoLTE coverage areas, but "handover is icing on the cake," he said, which operators may choose not to do. "There are side effects associated with it as well."

Related articles:
Verizon to begin rolling out Wi-Fi calling this week
Verizon enables Wi-Fi calling on Apple iPhone through Verizon Messages app
AT&T launches Wi-Fi calling for newer iPhones after getting FCC waiver
T-Mobile, Apple, Google lead the way on Wi-Fi calling