Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) has long been discussed as one of the telecom industry's next big steps.
While considering various technology options and how to tie them into their networks, operators globally are still endeavoring to make sense of just how big the opportunity is going to be. They're also still considering what the opportunity actually is.
Will VoLTE change the fortunes of their business? Will it transform the nature of the subscriber experience to the extent that it will reverse slippages in ARPU or reduce churn? Will VoLTE underpin new service innovations, strengthen competitive edge, and provide differentiation over OTT services sufficiently to plug the revenue leak caused by these OTT players?
Exciting though this new dawn is, the answer to all these questions is not quite yet as definitive and clear-cut as you might expect. There is no doubt that significant potential exists for VoLTE to do the above: VoLTE can, but will it? That's a different question, and one that boils down to the business case.
The trouble with uncertainty is that it loads risk into business-cases and the conservative knee-jerk is to minimize the investment at risk. Consequently, most operators consider consumer VoLTE as an exercise in simply re-creating today's voice services over their new IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) network.
Of course, one could argue, the lack of innovation at this point is part of the problem. Without innovation to add value to the VoLTE services there can be no incremental revenue to fund the investment in VoLTE, and so the business case is built only on possible cost-savings associated with transferring voice traffic to LTE. However, with the long-term need to maintain legacy voice (for fall-back until LTE coverage is complete, and for in-bound roamers) those potential cost-savings will take some time to occur, and even that business case looks shaky.
Certainly, rolling out IMS and VoLTE is a great opportunity to add something new -- to catch up with the services on offer from OTT communication service providers. High definition voice might be a "nice-to-have" for the average subscriber, but is some way from achieving the status of a "must-have," and only matches what would be available over-the-top of LTE using Skype.
In any case, it's just the tip of the iceberg. To even stand a chance of stimulating extra revenue, operators would presumably need to surpass the OTT offerings. And then, again, we're faced with the uncertainty of what the scale of those potential extra revenues would be. Building the business case this way could only fly if the extra cost taken to enhance the services broke all the norms of telco innovation. (This argument could apply to other services, such as rich communication services (RCS), but that is a debate in itself -- no need to bring that up here.)
So it seems that for consumers, VoLTE will be a case of "same again," and an opportunity missed by operators unable to see how to make the numbers work to bring innovation into play.
Enterprise, on the other hand, offers more promise.
The enterprise market requires more than plain old telephony -- it depends on more sophisticated forms of communications, ones that leverage and integrate with new technologies to enable greater productivity from a mobile workforce and reduce the business operating costs.
Telecom operators have a long history of supporting enterprise communications, and the launch of LTE and rollout of the IMS network and VoLTE can act as a catalyst for the next wave: For a start, the enterprise market is well suited to consuming IP telephony supported by IMS.
Moreover, launching a new network is a fresh opportunity for the network operators to develop innovative services targeted at a market segment that needs new capabilities and is prepared to pay for them. The business case here is, in effect, already established.
Some VoLTE rollout can be expected in 2014 for sure, but the peak is likely to come sometime in 2016, as operators currently must evaluate how best to build the service layer they need. The enterprise segment looks like a strong candidate for funding the investment in VoLTE: However, that means operators must plan for their VoLTE service layer to support the innovation needed by these customers.
Of course, if that solution also enables cost-effective service innovation more broadly, then maybe they can delight the consumers too.
— Jeff Gordon, CEO, OpenCloud