VoLTE spreads to Sprint and smaller carriers like Bluegrass, Southern Linc and others

A senior woman sitting on a yoga mat looks at a smartphone with information about heart rate.
VoLTE service promises to turn voice calls into data. (Getty Images/doble-d)

Following the lead of operators like Verizon and T-Mobile, some of the nation’s other wireless network operators—including the likes of Sprint, Bluegrass Cellular, U.S. Cellular, Southern Linc and Eastern Kentucky Network—are launching Voice over LTE services in part to remain viable roaming partners.

However, the finances around VoLTE roaming are much different than roaming in the 3G world. Indeed, the CEO of U.S. Cellular earlier this year admitted that the roaming revenues the company can obtain from VoLTE are lower than the roaming rates the company could command in 3G.

VoLTE, of course, is a much different technology than the circuit-switched voice calls running over 3G networks. VoLTE essentially turns voice calls into data sessions, thus dramatically reducing the overall use of the network. VoLTE also allows operators to use spectrum that was once dedicated to voice calls for LTE instead, thus making their overall spectrum usage more efficient.

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Likely as a result, the nation’s top wireless network operators have been moving to VoLTE with alacrity. Earlier this year, T-Mobile disclosed that more than 80% of all of its voice traffic was carried over VoLTE. Similarly, Verizon said VoLTE was fully deployed over its network, and 100% of its LTE sites have the capability. AT&T’s VoLTE network covered more than 320 million POPs, and all the smartphones it has launched since August 2016 have been VoLTE capable.

Further, some of these larger carriers are moving into a VoLTE-only world. Verizon recently confirmed that it will stop activating 3G CDMA devices as it prepares to discontinue service on that network by the end of 2019.

Thus, it’s no surprise that some of the nation’s smaller wireless network operators are working to install VoLTE capabilities on their own networks, in part to ensure that the market’s bigger players can continue to rely on them for roaming services—and so that their own customers can continue to use the larger carriers’ networks.

“I think the time is right” for smaller carriers to launch VoLTE, said William Levy, VP of sales for Huawei’s U.S. business, in comments at the recent Competitive Carrier Association’s trade show. Huawei supplies equipment to a range of small wireless network operators. “For the regional carriers, you want to stay relevant.”

And Han Schiet, Nokia’s IMS product management director, said that VoLTE deployments aren’t simple or easy, so smaller wireless network operators need to have a clear launch plan for VoLTE in order to be successful.

Some small operators have already made the jump. For example, Ron Smith, president of Bluegrass Cellular, said his company has been offering VoLTE for more than a year.

Similarly, Ericsson’s Amy McCune, VP of the vendor’s regional carrier business, said that Ericsson customers including GCI, Southern Linc, Eastern Kentucky Network and others have already taken the VoLTE plunge.

Thus, it’s not surprising that Sprint too is finally working to launch VoLTE after years of planning. As noted by The Verge, Sprint is switching on VoLTE in 15 cities on some Samsung phones; the service replaces Sprint’s “Calling Plus” service “as a much more capable platform that also supports simultaneous voice and data, over more Sprint devices with better voice quality.”

Sprint’s launch of VoLTE coincides with the company’s new roaming agreement with T-Mobile, which stems from their merger agreement in April.

That said, the smaller network operators moving to VoLTE could well experience a decline in roaming revenues due to the move.

“We still have a very nice chunk of 3G-related roaming that's at a higher price,” U.S. Cellular CEO Kenneth Meyers said earlier this year, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. “And as that migrates from 3G to 4G, we won't see the same revenue growth on in that piece. But overall, the plan when we talked about going to VoLTE was that we thought it would increase our addressable market on roaming, and that's exactly what we're seeing.”

Article updated Oct. 4 to clarify carriers' relative sizes.