As WhatsApp continues to make more noise following its acquisition by Facebook, operators remain relatively silent on their voice-over LTE (VoLTE) deployment plans. Will voice over-the-top of LTE (VOTLTE, anyone?) be the real story of the year?
Since Facebook announced its acquisition of WhatsApp in February, the OTT chat provider has said it will begin offering voice services to its customers, and it has inked a deal with E-Plus Service GmbH & Co. KG in Germany whereby the carrier is offering its customers unlimited access to WhatsApp's chat services outside of their data plans. (See Facebook to Acquire WhatsApp for $16B.)
WhatsApp has a huge user base -- more than 465 million monthly active users at last count. When it does introduce voice, that's 465 million voice customers that can call, not just each other, but anyone in the world, whether they are customers or not. E-Plus didn't say whether it would include voice in its plans, but my guess is it saw the writing on the wall when it formed its partnership.
"I think [voice] is huge and that is what is going to get the WhatsApp membership sky-high," industry analyst Sunil Tagare wrote in an email to Light Reading. "I am not sure WhatsApp is contemplating the latter yet but I think they should because that's where their massive growth is going to come from. Basically it means that every person in the world with a smartphone will be forced to become a WhatsApp member. They won't have a choice."
It's an exciting prospect, or scary if you're an operator. It also makes it a bit harder to get excited about VoLTE, that 4G voice technology you've heard a lot about but never actually heard. Sure, the GSM Association (GSMA) expects around 20 VoLTE launches this year, but -- especially in the US -- it seems the operators have steered the conversation away from 4G voice as they focus on other network enhancements. (See VoLTE: So Close You Can Hear It.)
Nokia Networks recently put out some (self-serving) research that suggests VoLTE is superior to VoIP in battery consumption (consuming 40% less) and quality levels, as well as having up to 94% lower mouth-to-ear delay compared to OTT VoIP.
The vendor's conclusion was that mobile operators have a powerful tool with VoLTE to compete with the OTT players, but I think you could also takeaway that it's in their best interest to make VoLTE a success lest they become overtaken by inefficient OTT options.
That movement is already happening, too. WhatsApp has shown it can be a great partner to an operator, but it should also serve as a warning. When it begins offering voice services, the voice game will change again. The question is whether or not the operators will be playing.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading