VoLTE/Rich communications

O2 to Launch VoLTE in 2016 After Q4 Trials

Telefónica UK plans to carry out trials of voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) technology between October and December with a view to launching commercial services sometime next year, Light Reading has learned.

The update from Telefónica UK Ltd. , which uses the O2 brand, comes days after EE , the UK's biggest mobile operator, confirmed it was on course to launch a VoLTE service this summer on "the market's most popular new handsets." (See EE on Track to Launch VoLTE in Summer.)

Number-three mobile player Vodafone UK is also aiming for a summer launch of both VoLTE and WiFi calling, while Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (Hong Kong: 0013; Pink Sheets: HUWHY)-owned Three UK , the smallest of the country's mobile network operators, plans to introduce VoLTE in September. (See 3 UK to Launch VoLTE by September.)

Until now, O2 had been the only mobile network operator yet to announce firm plans regarding VoLTE services -- a sign, perhaps, of a more cautious approach to the rollout of new technologies.

"We're planning to trial VoLTE in Q4 so that our customers get the best experience when we launch the service next year," a spokesperson for the operator has told Light Reading.

VoLTE allows voice calls to run over the 4G network and is supposed to lead to improvements in call quality and a reduction in the time it takes to set up a call.

Moreover, operators that lack sub-1GHz 2G frequencies, which are better at providing indoor coverage than higher-band spectrum, are looking to introduce VoLTE using 800MHz airwaves -- awarded in recent government auctions -- to bolster voice services for customers using mobile phones inside buildings.

That arguably makes VoLTE a bigger priority for EE and 3, which do not hold any 900MHz 2G licenses, than O2 and Vodafone, each of which controls 2x17.4MHz of spectrum in this frequency range.

Nevertheless, Vodafone appears to be several months ahead of O2 on VoLTE and possibly hopes to gain a competitive advantage from the service quality improvements associated with the technology.

It may also be concerned about losing out to EE, which has been trying to build a reputation as the most technologically advanced of the UK's four mobile network operators.

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Another factor in O2's development of VoLTE is a possible merger with 3.

Hutchison Whampoa has agreed to pay Spain's Telefónica £10.25 billion ($15.9 billion) for O2 and plans to merge it with 3 to create the UK's biggest mobile operator by customer numbers. (See Telefónica Seals $15.2B O2 Sale to Hutchison.)

3 had 8.4 million customers on its books at the end of last year and expects to serve 1 million VoLTE customers this year and 7.5 million in 2016.

During a previous discussion with Light Reading, Telefónica said it wanted to make sure VoLTE worked properly before introducing it more widely. (See Telefónica Aims High With Low-Band 4G Focus.)

"We want to make sure it's right and it's stable rather than rushing it out in one city just to make headlines, which you do see from time to time," said Mike Smith, Telefónica's head of global LTE activites, when talking about the operator's plans in Germany.

Vodafone Germany claimed to have beaten rivals to the rollout of a VoLTE service in March this year, while Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) said at the time that it would begin selling VoLTE handsets by June. (See Vodafone Claims to Beat German Rivals to VoLTE.)

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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