Verizon to launch VoLTE in the 'coming weeks,' will enable native video calling

Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) will launch its Voice over LTE service on a nationwide basis in the "coming weeks," and will enable HD Voice and video calling in phones' native dialers. However, Verizon is not saying exactly when it will launch VoLTE or which devices will support the service.

The launch follows VoLTE rollouts earlier this year from rivals AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS). Sprint (NYSE: S) has not yet given a timetable for when it will launch VoLTE, though there are rumors it may do so in the first half of 2015.

Mike Haberman, Verizon's vice president of network support, said in a recent roundtable discussion with reporters in New York City that Verizon waited until it could launch VoLTE on a nationwide basis rather than in a market-by-market approach because the technology is "more beneficial when you're looking at that type of [nationwide] environment." Verizon initially had planned to launch VoLTE commercially two years ago, but repeatedly delayed the launch.

Verizon has been seeding its customer base with smartphones that are capable of supporting VoLTE but will need to issue a software update to the device to launch the service. Haberman would not say which devices will be VoLTE-capable or how long Verizon has been seeding the market. Verizon demonstrated its VoLTE service on an LG Electronics G2, which Verizon launched in September 2013.

Once existing customers with VoLTE-capable phones get the software update they can enable the feature by logging on to their accounts online and choosing to do so. Customers can also activate the service when they purchase a new VoLTE-capable phone. To experience VoLTE, both customers on each end of the call will need to be using a VoLTE-enabled Verizon smartphone. Haberman said that not all new Verizon smartphones going forward will necessarily be VoLTE-capable.

verizon hd volte voice call
Screen shot of Verizon's HD Voice service, powered by Voice over LTE technology.

"The rollout of this is going to be customer choice," Haberman said. "It's a new technology. We're a technology leader. We feel it's at the point where customers can experience it."

Customers will be able to turn VoLTE on and off in their phone's settings and return to CDMA 1X voice service. "If you happen to be in an area where perhaps LTE coverage wasn't good or not the same as 1X, you are going to have the option to turn it off without calling the customer service," Haberman said.

The service will enable HD Voice calls, which, when this reporter tried the service using an LG G2, sounded clearer and richer than CDMA 1X voice calls. VoLTE-powered video calling is also natively enabled in the phone's dialer. Customers can use either the phone's rear or front-facing cameras in video calls and can switch back and forth. Customer can also switch off the video portion of the call and can continue the conversation with an audio-only call. If subscribers have their contacts backed up in Verizon's cloud (and not Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) cloud, for example), they will be able to see on their contact cards whether the person they are calling is using a VoLTE-capable phone, but not necessarily whether they are in an LTE coverage area.

verizon hd voice volte
Verizon's VoLTE service will support video calling.

There is no extra cost to Verizon's VoLTE service. HD Voice minutes will be deducted from a subscriber's normal voice minute bucket. Video calling gets deducted from a subscriber's data bucket. Importantly, Verizon says that a video call using VoLTE will consume around 6-8 MB of data per minute of calling.

Most critically for Verizon's VoLTE service, if a customer is not on a call and the phone is in the idle state and drops out of LTE coverage, the phone will automatically switch over to CDMA 1X voice service. However, if a customer is on a VoLTE call and drops out of LTE coverage, the call will disconnect.

In contrast, AT&T noted in a statement to FierceWireless that "if a customer starts a call on VoLTE and moves outside the VoLTE coverage area, the call automatically switches to our standard voice service." Similarly, T-Mobile noted that customers using VoLTE "do not have to worry about dropping calls if they leave a LTE area," because the carrier uses Enhanced Single Radio Voice Call Continuity (eSRVCC) to ensure "the smooth mobility between our various radio layers."

Haberman said Verizon plans to use VoLTE to "support multiple rich communications services in the future," including video sharing, chat functionality, file transfers and others--but he declined to say when those services would launch.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, where Verizon offers LTE-only data service, PC World noted that the carrier plans to offer native voice service for the first time thanks to the VoLTE launch. The carrier does not plan to build a 3G CDMA network in Alaska at all, and will instead continue to rely on roaming partners for coverage outside of its LTE coverage areas. Demian Voiles, Verizon's Alaska vice president, told the Alaska Dispatch News that the VoLTE service will stretch from Fairbanks to Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, Ketchikan, Juneau, Copper River Valley and much of Prince William Sound.

AT&T currently offers VoLTE-based HD Voice in select areas in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin and the carrier said it will "continue to expand on a market-by-market basis to ensure the best possible customer experience."

Like Verizon, AT&T too doesn't charge extra for VoLTE calls. AT&T said it expects to launch video calling over LTE later this year. AT&T only supports VoLTE-based HD Voice on the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini right now but expects to expand the number of VoLTE-capable devices in the future.

For its part, T-Mobile said its VoLTE service is available everywhere T-Mobile has LTE coverage and a consumer has a VoLTE-capable device. T-Mobile's LTE network now covers 235 million POPs. T-Mobile's VoLTE service does not cost extra. The carrier said it does not offer VoLTE-based video calling.

"Launching VoLTE is our first step towards rich communication services, which includes video services, and additional innovations around Wi-Fi calling that we are looking to build out for our customers over the next year," T-Mobile said. T-Mobile's VoLTE phones currently include the Samsung Galaxy S5, Galaxy Light and Note 3 and the LG G Flex, and the carrier is working to add more devices soon.

For more:
- see this PC World article
- see this Alaska Dispatch News article

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