Although U.S. carriers are beginning to deploy Voice over LTE service to provide higher-quality voice, simultaneous voice-and-LTE data and other features, they could eventually deliver voice services to devices like tablets and TVs, according to an executive from network vendor Mavenir.
Ian Maclean, Mavenir's vice president of strategy and marketing, told FierceWireless that he thinks VoLTE combined with Rich Communication Services will let carriers achieve parity with over-the-top services such as Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) FaceTime, but that carriers will look for differentiation. For example, he noted, Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) has said the video calling service that it will enable with VoLTE will work natively with customers' contacts and will let them do video calling no matter what operating system they are using.
Maclean said that finding "the killer app that the OTT guys don't offer is going to be tough." However, he said the next obvious place to go is what he termed "service ubiquity across a multi-device ecosystem." He noted that Apple's iOS 8 enables Mac to answer SMS messages and voice calls from their desktop computers if their iPhone is nearby. Carriers could potentially do the same thing for tablets, PCs or TVs, he said.
For instance, Maclean noted, carriers sell tablets in their stores but currently customers can't natively make a voice call from a tablet. By moving toward "sevrice ubiquity" carriers can deliver more cloud-like services, he added.
"I don't think it will necessarily be the biggest seller for them but I do think it could be a differentiator," in some areas, said Strategy Analytics analyst Susan Welsh de Grimaldo. She said such scenarios might be more attractive in enterprise settings.
Mavenir counts T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) as its first and biggest Tier 1 U.S. wireless carrier customer. The vendor provides an end-to-end IMS solution for T-Mobile that enables services such as Wi-Fi calling. Mavenir also provides the SMS via IMS part of AT&T Mobility's (NYSE: T) VoLTE launch, but not the voice component. Maclean would not say whether Mavenir is working with Verizon on its forthcoming VoLTE launch.
T-Mobile has launched VoLTE in the Seattle area for customers using three devices, the LG Electronics G Flex and Samsung Electronics Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Light. T-Mobile plans to roll out VoLTE to more T-Mobile customers throughout the year but has not given a timeframe for doing so. The blog TMoNews reported that readers and T-Mobile customers have sent in-call screenshots showing VoLTE calls being made in Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Alexandria, Va., near Washington D.C.
Verizon reiterated in May that it plans to launch VoLTE sometime this year, and said that when it launches the service the carrier will offer a "robust line" of VoLTE-capable smartphones and video calling services. Verizon has not set a specific timeframe for the launch but has said the service will be available nationwide--meaning, Verizon does not plan to roll out the service on a market-by-market basis. HD Voice and video calling are going to be the two main services initially offered through VoLTE technology, and will be accessible through a phone's native dialer.
AT&T in late May launched VoLTE via one device, the Galaxy S4 mini in select areas in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The carrier said it will expand to additional markets and phones in the future. AT&T said the technology would power HD Voice functions but made no mention of video calling or any other services. AT&T notes on its website that prepaid service, Smart Limits, ringback tones and OfficeDirect and OfficeReach for business customers are currently incompatible with HD Voice service.
Sprint (NYSE: S), for its part, has said it is in no rush to launch VoLTE. The company will rely on its CDMA network and EVRC-NW-powered HD Voice technology for voice calling services for the foreseeable future. "I think they're missing the boat," Maclean said, but he acknowledged that HD Voice will give Sprint a boost in performance and that the carrier is somewhat "handcuffed" by its ongoing LTE deployment.
Although Verizon is trailing AT&T and T-Mobile in VoLTE launches, Maclean said Verizon clearly feels it is in a decent position, especially because of its vow to launch the service nationwide. Further, Verizon executives have said in the past they expect to release their first LTE-only phones without CDMA chipsets in the fourth quarter of 2014. By making sure a nationwide VoLTE rollout is in place to support that, and that the call quality is as good as its circuit-switched network, Verizon could be aiming for quick adoption of LTE-only phones. If Verizon can remove CDMA chipsets from its phones that would allow it to cut costs on a large scale.
Maclean noted that carriers are constantly assessing the call quality on their network across the country and that to launch VoLTE services sooner T-Mobile and AT&T "obviously decided to make more concerted efforts in certain markets."
Welsh de Grimaldo said one of the big long-term benefits for Verizon in moving to VoLTE is to refarm the spectrum they are using for CDMA voice service. "I wouldn't say they're necessarily behind on VoLTE, they're just approaching the deployment differently," she said. "They're looking at it as a nationwide launch."
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Correction, June 13, 2014: This article incorrectly spelled the last name of the Mavenir executive quoted. His name is Ian Maclean, not McClean.