Have VoLTE, will travel

07 May 2015

If 2014 was the year that VoLTE became a commercial reality, 2015 will mark the year that VoLTE became a commercial roaming service.

In fact, it already has. In April this year, LG U+ and KDDI launched what’s being billed as the first commercial VoLTE roaming service for voice and video calls (although customers will initially need a specific handset, the LG G Flex 2, for it to work). More announcements are undoubtedly in the pipeline. According to a recent survey from Ovum (commissioned by iBasis), a little over half of operators polled plan to launch VoLTE roaming within 6-12 months after launching VoLTE services (almost 25% said that window was six months or less).

That announcement was preceded by a number of high-profile VoLTE roaming trials. In February, NTT DoCoMo, KT and Verizon Wireless said they had completed “feasibility tests of VoLTE roaming in a commercial environment.” (DoCoMo also said it would launch commercial VoLTE roaming later this year.) International wholesale service provider BICS is currently trialing VoLTE roaming with ten operators - the results of that trial were expected to be released after we went to press.

Not bad for a service that, by most accounts, won’t save the voice business - not in terms of stemming voice revenue losses. Despite VoLTE’s ability to provide HD voice and reduce call set-up times compared to CS fallback, consumers aren’t expected to pay more for HD voice than they already do for circuit-switched voice, which is getting cheaper every month.

But VoLTE’s real power is in providing the stickiness of a superior customer experience - and that puts pressure on operators to make sure that experience roams.

The general lack of VoLTE roaming to date is, of course, because VoLTE itself is only just out of the gate. (So, for that matter, is LTE data roaming, which has only really started to emerge in the past 18 months.) According to the latest stats from the GSA, just 16 operators in seven countries have launched commercial VoLTE-enabled HD voice services as of this month (although that number is expected to go up significantly over the next couple of years). The handful of cellcos that have launched domestic VoLTE to date have been more concerned with building up their local VoLTE base and working out the right business model before extending its reach overseas.

But that’s not the only reason. LTE roaming in general is a complex undertaking, and VoLTE adds to that complexity. There are questions about business models, interworking and the ongoing debate of home routing vs local breakout. There’s another barrier as well: consumers wary of data roaming charges.

VoLTE is your destiny

One could argue that there’s no hurry to enable VoLTE roaming because circuit-switched voice roams already via CS fallback.

That might make sense in the short term, but only because it’s short-term thinking. CS fallback is ostensibly an interim solution to the problem of LTE’s initial inability to support voice calls. In the longer term, VoLTE will supplant circuit-switched voice as the default voice experience for many mobile users. And customers will come to expect that experience no matter where they are, says John Wick, senior VP and GM for mobile transaction services at Syniverse.

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