UK mobile network operator 3 is planning to launch a VoLTE service between July and September, Light Reading has learned.
The company, which operates the smallest of the UK's four mobile networks, confirmed its plans in an email to Light Reading just days after rival Vodafone UK announced it would launch VoLTE and WiFi calling services this summer. (See Vodafone UK to Launch VoLTE in Summer.)
With EE , the country's biggest mobile operator, also set to launch VoLTE services later this year, the UK could soon be a hotbed of VoLTE competition.
Until now, operators have been using a technology called circuit switched fallback (CSFB) to support voice services for customers with 4G devices. With CSFB, the operator's 2G or 3G network is brought into play when a customer makes a voice call.
VoLTE allows calls to run over the 4G network and should result in shorter set-up times and improved quality for customers. Because 4G is more spectrally efficient than 2G or 3G, it might also help operators to reduce costs.
One barrier to the launch of VoLTE has been a shortage of compatible devices, although operators in North America and parts of the Far East are already providing VoLTE services to their customers.
Nevertheless, before introducing VoLTE, EE plans to launch a WiFi calling service on Microsoft's Lumia 640 and Lumia 640 XL handsets on April 7. The service will also be made available on Samsung's new Galaxy S6 smartphone from April 10 and on a range of other devices, including the iPhone, in subsequent weeks.
Vodafone, however, intends to launch both WiFi calling and VoLTE at around the same time. In a statement, the operator said it had been testing the technologies in its lab for "several months" and would now begin VoLTE user trials ahead of a commercial launch.
It has not provided details of the devices that will support either WiFi calling or VoLTE, indicating this information will be published "at launch," while Three UK and EE have also yet to reveal which smartphones will allow their customers to use VoLTE.
EE had originally planned to launch WiFi calling last fall. The long delay has given Vodafone an opportunity to catch up, although EE still expects to beat its rival to a commercial launch by at least two months.
WiFi calling seems likely to hold appeal in areas where mobile coverage is poor and indoor signals are weak, and VoLTE could have similar attractions.
Indeed, EE has been running VoLTE trials in a rural part of Oxfordshire that was previously unconnected using its 800MHz spectrum. Mobile phone signals travel much further and better penetrate buildings at sub-1GHz frequencies, and yet -- despite having a richer spectrum portfolio than its rivals -- EE lacks any of the 900MHz airwaves originally awarded for use with 2G voice services.
3 similarly lacks any 900MHz spectrum but picked up the same amount of 800MHz spectrum as EE during the UK's 4G auction in early 2013.
Table 1: Spectrum Holdings of UK Operators
|800MHz||900MHz||1800MHz||2.1GHz||2.1GHz unpaired||2.6GHz||2.6GHz unpaired|
|Sources: European Communications Office, Ofcom, operators|
Telefónica UK Ltd. , which trades under the O2 brand and is the country's second-biggest mobile operator, has yet to reveal any firm plans for VoLTE.
The operator is currently the target of a £10 billion ($14.78 billion) takeover bid by 3 owner Hutchison Whampoa. A merger of 3 and O2 would create the UK's biggest mobile network, pushing EE into second place and leaving Vodafone as the smallest network operator in a three-player market. (See Hutchison Offers $13.9B for UK's O2.)
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading