All eyes are on MetroPCS as VoLTE momentum grows

Sue Marek
The industry is closely watching flat-rate carrier MetroPCS (NASDAQ:PCS) to see if it will deploy VoLTE in the first quarter of this year, making it the first operator worldwide to commercially launch VoLTE, the GSMA-backed standard for delivering voice calls over LTE networks.

Supporters of VoLTE include nearly all of the major operators as well as equipment vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and more. In fact, Infonetics Research said last July that 78 percent of the operators that participated in its study said that they will have VoLTE, RCS (rich communication service) and/or VoIP over 3G deployed by 2013.

MetroPCS CEO Roger Linquist indicated last year that the company was planning to deploy VoLTE in the first quarter, putting it well ahead of the VoLTE curve. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), which also is pushing hard to launch VoLTE, has said it will deploy it in late 2012 or early 2013.

Of course, MetroPCS has a big incentive to move to VoLTE quickly as the technology will allow it to refarm its spectrum currently reserved for CDMA services. Verizon also wants to use VoLTE as a way to free up some legacy spectrum.

Shubh Agarwal, vice president of marketing at Mavenir, which is one of the VoLTE vendors working with MetroPCS, said that MetroPCS' network is ready to launch VoLTE and the company is currently in the midst of testing equipment and checking network performance. 

However, Agarwal added that MetroPCS and others that deploy VoLTE this year and in 2013 will not have single radio voice call continuity, meaning they won't be able to deliver seamless calls between the LTE network and the 3G CDMA network, at least not until 2014. Agarwal said that there just won't be devices to support that type of handoff.

Indeed, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) announced today that it has just completed the first voice call handover between LTE and W-CDMA using single radio voice call continuity (SRVCC). Working with Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), Qualcomm said that SRVCC is the next logical step in VoLTE and when combined with circuit-switched fallback (CSFB) technology, operators can support connections on a single chip, eliminating the need for separate LTE and 3G radios and modems in one handset.

Although development is under way, multimode 3G/LTE devices are still at least a couple years from reality, making it likely that operators that deploy VoLTE in 2012 and 2013 will just have to work around this issue. Agarwal said that operators are looking at ways to optimize the VoLTE experience--either through improved coverage in high-density areas or by optimizing the LTE network--so that customers are not greatly impacted by this.

Clearly we are on the cusp of some very interesting developments in the mobile voice arena. Between the anticipated VoLTE deployments and new services such as HD voice or mobile video chat, the next-generation of mobile voice services will likely provide some interesting opportunities for operators to differentiate their services. --Sue