Advanced as the UK mobile market may be, its operators can hardly be described as pioneers when it comes to voice-over-LTE (VoLTE). While VoLTE is already available in many other parts of the world, UK service providers have been happy to make do with circuit-switched fallback, bringing the 2G or 3G network into play when a voice call is made to or from a 4G device.
But that is all set to change this month, when three of the country's four network operators have promised to introduce VoLTE services. Both EE and Vodafone UK have been guiding for a summer launch of the technology, while Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (Hong Kong: 0013; Pink Sheets: HUWHY)-owned Three UK has indicated it will also begin offering VoLTE to customers during its third quarter, which runs from July until September. Meanwhile, Telefónica UK Ltd. , the company that trades as O2 and which Hutchison is trying to buy from Spain's Telefónica , is aiming for a 2016 launch following trials in the final three months of the year. (See EE on Track to Launch VoLTE in Summer, Vodafone UK to Launch VoLTE in Summer, 3 UK to Launch VoLTE by September, O2 to Launch VoLTE in 2016 After Q4 Trials and Telefónica Seals $15.2B O2 Sale to Hutchison.)
Google searches indicate the official end of summer is September 23, which means the entire coterie of operators bar O2 is now under some pressure on the VoLTE front. Of course, should operators miss their self-imposed deadlines, it would not be the first time they have done so. But is there a possibility operators are engaged in a kind of Mexican standoff, waiting to see how rivals position VoLTE before they start marketing it themselves? And does any operator have more to gain from VoLTE than others?
There can be little doubt that many earlier launches of new services and technologies have been quickly followed by similar updates from competitors. Although it is probably a more common phenomenon in the US, where T-Mobile US Inc. continues to lampoon its increasingly tetchy rivals during promotional campaigns, operators have clearly played a wait-and-see game before now, adapting their advertising literature once others have taken the plunge.
In the case of VoLTE, there is bound to be some wariness. From a consumer standpoint, the attractions of the technology are supposed to include shorter call set-up times, higher call quality and the ability to use mobile data services while conducting a phone call. But operators are not used to communicating details of such benefits to their subscribers. Indeed, when they are not talking about tariffs or partnerships with web companies, players have tended to highlight the speed of their data networks or the availability of their services.
Pitching VoLTE could be a nervier move for EE and 3, simply because they seem to have more riding on the technology than Vodafone UK. Neither EE nor 3 holds any of the sub-1GHz spectrum originally handed out for use with 2G voice services and much better at providing in-building coverage than above-1GHz airwaves. They did, however, pick up 800MHz licenses during the UK's 4G auction and could use these to support VoLTE. Intriguingly, EE has been running trials of 800MHz-based VoLTE in a part of rural Oxfordshire where existing coverage is poor. 3, moreover, admitted in a blog published earlier this year that 800MHz-based VoLTE would allow customers "to make and receive calls in places they've never been able to before." (See Can WiFi Calling Find Its Voice?)
VoLTE, then, could be the solution to bad indoor signals for two of the country's network operators. And in a market where the fixed line is increasingly seen as a broadband-only technology, that could prove critical. But even if 3 is prepared to acknowledge that its customers cannot make calls everywhere, EE may be reluctant to follow suit. Having repeatedly emphasized the superiority of its network over those of its rivals, EE will be concerned about drawing attention to any deficiencies.
Marketing concerns may or may not explain why VoLTE has not yet arrived in the UK, but getting the message right from the outset has rarely been so important.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading