When people talk about LTE, they mainly talk about mobile broadband data. And with good reason – LTE is, after all, an all-IP technology that offers massive increases in download speeds. Indeed, many operators initially deployed LTE as a data-only service.
However, LTE doesn’t just represent the next generation of mobile broadband – it also heralds the next generation of voice services.
That may come as a surprise to some, not least because the voice business is widely perceived as a shrinking one. All around the world, operators are reporting declines in voice revenues as customers turn to over-the-top (OTT) services like Skype, Viber, WhatsAppand WeChat – which, ironically, are enabled by HSPA and even more so by LTE.
Yet voice is still in high demand. Research from Ericsson indicates that global voice minutes grew at a double-digit rate in 2012, and will do the same in 2013. In Asia Pacific, mobile voice and SMS still accounts for at least 70% operator revenues in the emerging economies and more than half in mature markets.
While LTE may provide OTT players with a chance to cash in on traditional voice and SMS services, it also provides operators with a way to compete and cooperate with them by creating enhanced communication services via emerging technologies and solutions such as VoLTE, RCS and WebRTC. These can not only take voice to the next level of evolution, but also take voice into all-new service contexts and segments, including mobile health and mobile payment.
VoLTE + RCS
Many cellcos initially deployed LTE as a data-only service, with voice capabilities handled by CS Fallback, which allows LTE users to drop down to 3G to make normal voice calls.
That made sense in the early days of LTE rollouts when coverage was initially limited to specific areas – users naturally expect voice to work everywhere, and 2G/3G networks already provide that.
However, as LTE networks become more fully deployed, operators are now turning their attention to Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which sports a number of advantages over CS Fallback, such as faster call set-up times and improved network efficiency.
More to the point, says Warren Chaisatien, Strategic Marketing Manager for Ericsson South East Asia and Oceania, VoLTE is designed to do more than simply enable reliable voice services on LTE’s all-IP network.
“As LTE rollouts get into high gear, VoLTE provides an enabling platform for an enriched voice service with superior high-definition call quality, faster call set-up times and the possibility of introducing telecom-grade video calling over LTE,” he says.
Also, he says, “By introducing RCS [ich ommunication ervices], the voice service can be integrated with other popular functionality like instant messaging, group chat and group calling, presence, dynamic address books, and real-time sharing of multimedia content straight from the phone’s address book.”
RCS – a concept developed and promoted by the GSM Association – has been around for some time, but has been slow to catch on with operators. That said, the past year has seen some high-profile RCS launches from SK Telecom, LG U+, MetroPCS, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica.
“It is becoming clear that multimedia communication on multiple screens is wanted by end users, fueled by proliferation and affordability of smartphones and tablets and user behavior such as social media use,” he says. “RCS is the best way to for operators to address this need, as it’s a telco service that will work across the globe and standardized to enable consumers and businesses to communicate in the same secure medium.”
Everything is a phone
To unlock even more possibilities for voice, the next step will be WebRTC. Defined under the HTML5 specification, WebRTC is emerging as the industry’s standard framework for embedding communication within web browsers, making real-time communication possible with any website, without any plug-ins to install or download, Chaisatien explains. “Imagine being able to shop online for a product and clicking on a product page for a live video call with a sales representative.”
What that means in practical terms is that WebRTC effectively turns the traditional web browser into a multimedia phone capable of connecting to any telecom network, Chaisatien says. “This means any device with a screen, a browser and an internet connect can become a telephone – and now that internet connectivity is entering the white goods space, can includeyour TV, fridge, PC, photo frame, mirror, anything with an internet connection.”
Enabling voice calls in browsers isn't a new idea, but making it happen has been problematic due to various issues, such as interoperability and browser support. WebRTC’s advantage is its roots in HTML5,Chaisatien insists.
“WebRTC comes with the new HTML5 browsers from Mozilla and Google. The standard software update method to distribute these browsers will ensure widespread deployment in a short time,” he says. “With the ease of development in HTML5, it’s only a question of time when new applications will spring up, driven by the innovation of the web community.”
All of this adds up to a serious opportunity for operators to up their voice game and deliver richer communications services at a time where customers want and demand multimedia, multi-access, multi-devices. And that’s just the start as we move towards what Ericsson calls the “etworked ociety”, says Chaisatien.
“The next step is extending the reach of services – out on the web and into applications – letting people access them regardless of where or in which context they are,” he says.
One aspect of that, he adds, is making communication services accessible to new subscribers and in new business models. “This can be done for example by exposing network capabilities into applications like mobile health, mobile payment and mobile education via partnerships.”
Interoperability is key
As highlighted above, the technology already exists: VoLTE, RCS and WebRTC are all here, right now.
What operators have to decide now, says Chaisatien of Ericsson, is how best to use them, which will depend on their own market situation and the role they see themselves playing in the over all digital services value chain: as network developers, service enablers or service creators.“You can offer VoLTE and RCS on own, or you can leverage OTT services to strengthen your brand, or you can create new services like WebRTC applications, or any combination of those.”
While the technology is ready to go, Chaisatien notes that there are of course challenges involved in deploying it, the biggest one being interoperability between different operator services.
The obvious parallel is SMS, which famously languished as a service when operators limited messages to their own customers. It was only after operators enabled network interoperability that SMS became the cash cow it’s known as today.
The same will have to happen with VoLTE and RCS, Chaisatien warns. “Operators will have to ensure that VoLTE/RCS are interoperable across different telco networks from any user to any user, anywhere in the world,” he says. “Only when the services are fully interoperable will adoption take off.”