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There’s a lot of recent talk of mobile operators launching their own voice-over-IP services, but what may surprise you is which carrier is on the leading edge of that trend: MetroPCS(s pcs). FierceWireless has confirmed with Metro SVP of engineering Ed Chao that the regional carrier will complete the necessary core network upgrades and start selling its first voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) handset in the second half of 2012.
MetroPCS in general has been ahead of the curve when it comes to new network technologies. It was the first U.S. operator to turn up LTE services – beating Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) to launch by several months. It quickly expanded its 4G service to cover its entire 14-market footprint, and almost immediately began transitioning its SMS and MMS traffic from its CDMA networks to its all-IP LTE systems. It has attempted to be just as aggressive with the voice transition – originally announcing the VoLTE service would launch in the current quarter – but it’s apparently run into a few snags, forcing it to delay until later this year.
The sooner, MetroPCS can migrate voice to LTE the better. MetroPCS is much more strapped for spectrum than its bigger counterparts. Instead of using big unencumbered chunks of new 4G airwaves, Metro has resorted to shaving off slivers of its CDMA spectrum to use for LTE. Consequently, Metro’s current 4G service can’t match the big fat mobile broadband pipes Verizon and AT&T(s t) are offering in most places. Once it starts moving the lion’s share of voice traffic over to LTE, Metro can start shutting down portions of its CDMA network, using those frequencies to build bigger 4G pipes.
Once it does launch the VoIP service, however, don’t expect MetroPCS to suddenly start acting like Skype(s msft). The operators are moving to VoIP not to offer free or cheap Internet calling but rather to streamline their network operations and give a legacy service in desperate need of a facelift. MetroPCS may drop it’s voice pricing slightly, but don’t expect anything radical – the operator is already one of cheapest in the business offering unlimited voice plans at prices far below the national carriers.
But MetroPCS may also use its VoLTE’s new multimedia and presence capabilities to spice up tired old voice services. Mavenir Systems (see disclosure) is supplying the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) gear that will migrate its SMS and voice services to IP, and it has the ability to layer on a bunch of integrated video and messaging services as well. MetroPCS could also use its LTE-IMS combo to offer a service similar to Rogers One Number, which allows customers to extend their mobile phone number across a broad range of devices.
Disclosure: Mavenir Systems is backed by Alloy Ventures, which also backs GigaOmni Media, the parent company of GigaOM. Alloy’s Ammar Hanafi is on the board of both companies.