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Verizon’s voice-over-LTE service will include Facetime-like video calling at launch

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AT&T(s t) may have beat Verizon(s vz) off the starting line when it took its new voice-over-LTE service live this week, but Verizon said on Tuesday it plans to finish the VoLTE race strong. The carrier still hasn’t revealed when in 2014 its next-generation mobile telephony service will launch, but when it does it will debut nationwide and immediately offer enhanced communications features like video calling, Verizon VP of Mobile and Internet services Brian Higgins said at a media briefing.

The video chat feature will be much like Apple’s(s aapl) Facetime as it will be accessible from the phone’s dialer and contact lists and users can switch between voice and video calling with a tap of the button. Verizon started previewing integrated video calling way back in 2011, but it’s significant that the feature will available to customers on day 1 of launch.

Most mobile carriers are gradually rolling out VoLTE features over time. For instance, AT&T’s VoLTE service – which went live in Chicago and Minneapolis on Monday on a single device, the Galaxy S4 mini – will offer HD voice calling, but other features will roll out later.

galaxy s4 mini
The Galaxy S4 mini will be the first device from the major U.S. carriers to support VoLTE, but not the last.

And what other features are we talking about? Stuff like presence notifications in your contact list, one-touch voice conferencing, enhanced IM, multiple phone numbers linked to the same handset, and the ability to switch seamlessly between communications formats. All of these technologies are spelled out in the new Rich Communications Suite (RCS) standard that global carriers are adopting, but not all of them may be available to consumers – at least not for free. Some of the more advanced features may be reserved for carrier’s enterprise customers, who will be the main targets for VoLTE.

For any of these services to work though, both phones have to be VoLTE capable, and that’s an extremely limited number of devices right now. Verizon will have several VoLTE capable devices available at launch, as well as support several devices already in the market with software upgrades, Higgins said. But I would expect them to be limited to newer Android smartphones at first.

Higgins said Verizon is only committing to HD Voice and video calling for launch, though once it brings SMS into it the VoLTE fold it can move its customers entirely off of its older 2G networks and entirely onto the all-IP LTE network. Verizon doesn’t seem to be in any hurry, though. It keeps pushing back it’s VoLTE launch date (we originally expected to see VoLTE in early 2013), and Verizon has become vaguer and vaguer about its timeline.

Verizon's LTE coverage in dark red
Verizon’s LTE coverage in dark red

Verizon’s VoLTE service will only be as good as it’s LTE network. As a CDMA operator, Verizon can’t link its 2G and 4G networks with a technology called single-radio voice call continuity that will allow VoIP conversations on the LTE network to hand themselves over to the 2G network. Unlike AT&T and other GSM operators, Verizon’s VoLTE calls will just drop when they leave LTE coverage. Before Verizon takes VoLTE live it wants to ensure it has enough LTE coverage and capacity, and it’s well on the way there. On Monday it announced its new high-capacity LTE network – which it’s calling XLTE – has gone up in 250 cities.

11 Responses to “Verizon’s voice-over-LTE service will include Facetime-like video calling at launch”

  1. frank

    so are the carriers building anything into the networks to make this more reliable? or will the reliability equal what we get today with facetime or skype?

    if they are making changes will those enhancements(i am think QOS and special low latency routing) be available for over the top service to take advantage of as well.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi frank,

      Good question, and one that strikes at the heart of the network neutrality debate. Carriers aren’t treating these VoLTE services like any OTT service. There traffic will be prioritized over the network, or stuck in the fast lane, to use the term that’s in vogue. As for other OTT services like Skype, carriers could prioritize their traffic as well, but they would charge for it. We’re already started to the first whispers of this in the dual-sided data charging models.

      • frank

        if the OTT stuff becomes reliable than what a lot people are going to start asking is: why do we have different plans for phones and tablets? it is not unreasonable for people to demand the carrier allow them to use their phone on tablet plans and than use OTT app for calling.

        i believe as long as verizons 700mhz is one of the bands being used than verizon must allow this.

        • Kevin Fitchard

          You can already do that with OTT apps on the tablet or other internet only devices, but carriers are not going to sell you “their” voice services on a tablet plan. It uses VoIP as its underlying technology, but the carriers will distinguish their voice services from other VoIP services, and they’ll just justify it by saying they can provide a better quality of service than an OTT app. I hear what you’re saying, Frank, but carriers just aren’t going to deliver it. There are already are a few cases where MVNOs are experimenting with this kind of model, FreedomPop for instance. But Verizon won’t sell such a plan directly.

          • frank

            but you can take a SIM card out of a tablet or jetpack and put it into a phone and it works. and the rules governing verizon 700mhz means they cant stop us from doing it. people just do not know they have this option. as VOIP gets more reliable over cellular this is sure to happen.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Louis,

      I wouldn’t hold your breath. Verizon may be running VoLTE over its data network, but it’s going to treat it like its regular voice services. Basically this is a way for Verizon to save costs, not you. That’s why I’m puzzled when people get so excited about VoLTE simply for voice’s sake. It’s not really going to be any different than what we have today. The add-on services like video and whatnot are the really cool things.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Frank

      There will be when carriers bring similar services online, but I have to add a whole lot of caveats to that statement. Carriers will need to support the same voice codecs for HD voice, which in AT&T and Verizon’s case is AMR-Wideband (a good thing for interoperability. As for the add on services like video chat if carriers stick to the standards like RCS there will be interoperability among mobile phones, but calling a laptop or a Facetime account from a Verizon phone might still be out of reach.