U.S. operators plan to launch VoLTE soon, but benefits to users are unclear

Mike Dano

All of the nation's Tier 1 U.S. carriers have indicated they will probably launch Voice over LTE technology in the near future. However, it's unclear exactly what that launch will mean for actual wireless users.

First, let's start with what VoLTE is: It's a technology that will allow wireless carriers to transmit voice calls over LTE networks and through their IMS cores via IP, as they already do with data services. This means voice calls and data sessions will travel side-by-side over LTE, creating the possibility of innovative new services that combine the two. VoLTE is also much more efficient from both a network and spectrum perspective. Currently carriers transmit voice calls over circuit-switched 2G and 3G networks. VoLTE requires the installation of new software inside carrier networks and inside the phones themselves.

A number of carriers across the world have already launched VoLTE services. In the United States, MetroPCS became the nation's first carrier to launch VoLTE via the LG Connect smartphone in 2012, explaining that the technology would eventually allow it to deploy LTE on the spectrum it was using for CDMA voice calls. However, MetroPCS never really advertised its VoLTE service to customers, and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) hasn't discussed the technology much in relation to its now-completed acquisition of MetroPCS.

SK Telecom and LG Uplus in South Korea have also launched VoLTE. According to Ray Adensamer, senior product marketing manager for Radisys, the Korean carriers are charging slightly more for LTE services than for 3G services, partly because of the higher-quality voice calls enabled by VoLTE.

How will Sprint (NYSE:S), T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) position VoLTE when they launch the technology? The carriers generally won't discuss their future plans. But according to the VoLTE vendors and analysts I spoke with, we should not expect any groundbreaking new services like real-time language translation or video voicemails. Instead, carriers likely will initially use VoLTE to reach parity with current communication innovations like FaceTime, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Hangouts, Google Voice, WhatsApp and other over-the-top messaging services.

Ian Maclean, VP of strategy and marketing for technology vendor Mavenir, explained that carriers plan to launch RCS alongside VoLTE, which will give them the platform to "remain relevant" during a time when Facebook Messenger, Viber, Skype and other OTT vendors are transmitting a larger and larger share of mobile users' communications. For example, with VoLTE and RCS a wireless carrier could offer its own FaceTime-style video calling service across all its VoLTE phones.

Current Analysis analyst Lynnette Luna agreed: "It should put them on a more equal footing with OTT providers," she said, adding that services like video messaging and social presence information (seeing who is online and nearby) could also be in the offing.

But most agreed that higher-quality, speedier voice calls will be the first service that wireless carriers deploy via VoLTE. Radisys' Adensamer said that VoLTE will replace the narrowband codecs on circuit-switched voice calls with HD audio codecs, meaning that the "audio quality will be noticeably better." VoLTE calls will also connect in under 2 seconds compared with the 5-10 seconds on circuit-switched networks. Those higher-quality calls will only work on VoLTE phones and across carriers that have inked VoLTE interoperability agreements.

Although clearer, speedier voice calls are nice, I think carriers are missing an opportunity here to finally innovate in one of their core service areas: communication. VoLTE and RCS creates an opportunity not just for me-too services already available elsewhere, but for services that we haven't seen before. For example, real-time language translation is something carriers could potentially offer via VoLTE. Carriers could also overhaul their ancient, audio-based voicemail services with the addition of video, transcriptions and message portability, allowing customers to forward, organize and archive their messages.

Of course, the installation of VoLTE and RCS is just part of the solution. Carriers will also have to work with handset makers and operating system providers to ensure VoLTE and RCS are working as intended--and this could be a major challenge with famously reticent vendors like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). But it's been too long since we've seen carriers innovate in the voice realm--and wouldn't it be cool to automatically record and transcribe the directions someone gives you during a call, rather than searching for a pen and writing it down? --Mike | +MikeDano | @mikeddano