When will voice-over-LTE matter? When it’s no longer just about voice

Kid playing telephone

After years of delays, voice-over-LTE finally seems to be making its way into mobile networks and phones. T-Mobile recently announced its entire U.S. LTE network now supports the VoIP technology, while Verizon recently revealed it would begin selling its first 4G-only phones in 2016.

As we purchase new smartphones over the next few years, we’ll find traditional 2G phone calls receding into the past and voice or SMS becoming just another IP service. Today, however, consumers buying new VoLTE phones probably won’t notice much of a difference.

These initial VoLTE rollouts are focused solely on voice, which makes sense given the technology’s name, but apart from making the occasional HD voice call to other VoLTE device owners, the service is going to look – and cost – the same as old-school voice calls.

The real promise of VoLTE isn’t voice, but rather the raft of IP services that can be attached to those voice calls. By moving to an all IP network and service delivery platform, voice just becomes another feature in a wide-ranging communication service, all of which can be linked to a universal ID: your ten-digit phone number.

VoLTE could make video chat features like Apple's Facetime standard on all 4G phones (source: Apple)

VoLTE could make video chat features like Apple’s Facetime standard on all 4G phones (source: Apple)

Verizon has already gotten wise to potential of VoLTE for more than just voice. It recently announced that it would launch its new VoIP service nationwide late this year with a video-chat service similar to Apple’s Facetime. But video chat is just the beginning. SMS will become augmented with presence and IM features now common in over-the-top messaging apps. Collaboration and sharing features could be layered on top of any voice or video chat session. Basically all of the new communications features that help make smartphones “smart” will no longer be walled off from the phone’s core voice and texting services.

What’s more, the strict association of a phone number with a particular phone begins to blur. VoLTE will help virtualize our phone numbers, allowing calls to be routed to your web browser when at your desk and switch back to your smartphone when you leave the room.

A single phone could host multiple identities and multiple phone numbers. So for instance, during business hours your phone’s business persona would be active and all calls and messages sent to your “office line” would get prioritized. But as the clock hits 5 PM, that business persona would recede into the background, routing all calls to voicemail and storing all messages for later viewing. At the same time your personal account resurfaces, bringing communications with your friends and family to the forefront.

identity

Most of the capabilities probably already sound familiar to you because they’ve long been available from a bevy of different over-the-top communications apps, ranging from Facetime and Tango to WhatsApp and Google Voice.

The big difference – and perhaps the carriers’ only advantage after being so late to the market – is that VoLTE can centralize all these services in a single client and apply them universally across all phones. OTT apps not only require registration, but their networks are inherently limited by their membership. Every mobile phone owner has a phone number, and even if every device doesn’t support more advanced VoLTE features, any communications session can always default to a phone call or SMS exchange.

But because these kind of communications capabilities have been available for so long — and often for free — in the app stores, the carriers will have a difficult time charging for them. After years of getting free video chat with Skype, Facetime and Tango, there’s no way Verizon can suddenly come out with a $5 video-calling plan.

I recently interviewed the CTO of enterprise communications company Broadsoft, Scott Hoffpauir. He believes that carriers aren’t really building these VoLTE networks for consumers. Rather they’re building them for enterprises, which are much more likely to pay for the advanced collaboration, security and identity services VoLTE will bring.

That calculus makes sense, but I also think we’ll see VoLTE’s best features become readily available to consumers as well. Carriers won’t turn those video chat and IM features into new revenue streams. Instead they’ll use them to preserve the voice revenues they already have. Basically VoLTE will help prevent the carriers’ voice and SMS services from becoming irrelevant.

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