09 Aug 2017

Has VoLTE lived up to its promise yet?

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Last year I took a look at why VoLTE deployments were taking so long in 'VoLTE deployments: the truth behind the delay?’ Twelve months on and I now ask; has VoLTE lived up to its promise yet?

Did you know it has been five years since the first VoLTE service was launched in South Korea? Well since then a lot has changed, and the VoLTE landscape now looks profoundly different. In fact, there are now 102 operators offering VoLTE across 54 countries, and the number of VoLTE users is expected to exceed 540 million by the end of the year.

What VoLTE coverage looks like today

When it comes to VoLTE, APAC is the region that has stormed ahead of the others with early deployments and accelerating uptake. North America sits in second place, with Europe lagging behind somewhat.

China is well established: Making the news last week, Zhejiang China Mobile has just passed the 10 million users mark. This is a whopping 10-fold increase in their VoLTE user base compared to this time last year! For Zhejiang China Mobile, VoLTE calls now account for 20% of their voice traffic. The national average across all operators in China is now 8%, so they really are leading the race.

Europe has been slow off the mark: Across Europe, VoLTE deployments have been slower than expected. However, the beginning of 2017 saw many welcome announcements of VoLTE launches including Telia in Sweden, Three in Denmark, O2 in Czech Republic and Vodafone in Ireland. This plethora of recent VoLTE launches shows that momentum is picking up in the region.

India is hot on VoLTE right now: Reliance Jio launched their VoLTE service in 2016 and managed to bag 100 million subscribers. Unsurprisingly, the competition is now following suit with Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular announcing their VoLTE launches for early 2018.

VoLTE performance still needs to be optimised

One of the big concerns for many operators prior to launching VoLTE was the risk of a poor-quality service. After all, they had spent decades optimising 2G and 3G voice, and knew subscribers would expect the same quality almost immediately. Unfortunately, 2016 research by Amdocs found that across 80 operators, VoLTE calls were 4 – 5 times less stable that 2G and 3G calls. Ericsson’s Rahul Karnik puts this down to high dropped call rates due to radio link failures, and poor handovers.

However, early optimisation is beginning to pay off for some; RootMetrics have collected Mean Opinion Scores (MOS) for AT&T and T-Mobile’s VoLTE services in Seattle, with a score of 3.5/5. This is higher than typical MOS scores for the area across 2G and 3G voice services.  So, it looks like VoLTE quality of service is beginning to improve, and over the next few years will likely come close to the quality we are used to seeing across 2G and 3G voice.

What’s next for VoLTE?

The industry has high hopes for VoLTE; Ericson’s 2017 mobility report predicts that global VoLTE subscriptions will reach 4.6 billion by 2022, the equivalent of 90% of all LTE subscriptions. Of course, one of the biggest changes we will see is the subsequent retirement of legacy 2G and 3G networks.  In fact, AT&T and the incumbent operators in Singapore have already retired their 2G network to free up spectrum. For some countries, 3G will likely be retired before 2G, since 2G offers revenue from M2M communications. In Europe for example, Telenor Norway has proposed retiring its 3G network in 2020, with the 2G network following 5 years later.

So, has VoLTE lived up to its promise yet?

Almost. Uptake is increasing, quality of service looks to be improving and legacy circuit-switched networks are beginning to be retired. Of course, most consumers are oblivious to what technology their voice calls use anyway. The driving force behind VoLTE is the operators need to reduce costs, and as we see the retirement of more 2G and 3G networks, it looks like this goal will soon be achieved. 

 

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