Can you hear me now? Verizon, AT&T to make voice-over-LTE interoperable in 2015

AT&T and Verizon have just started rolling out voice over LTE (VoLTE), but they already have plans to link their two next-generation voice services together. The pair announced plans on Monday to begin interoperability work on VoLTE. Sometime in 2015 an AT&T customers might just be able to make a VoLTE call to a Verizon customer — and vice versa — and see that conversation stay entirely on IP networks.

Why is that a big deal? Well, for the consumer, the most noticeable initial benefit will be higher-quality HD voice calls. A lot of carriers are already offering HD voice, but it’s surprisingly difficult to actually make a high-definition call. Not only do both you and the person you’re calling need to own HD-capable VoLTE handsets like the iPhone 6, you need to be connected to an HD-enabled cell site. And in nearly all cases today, you also have to be on the same carrier. Interoperability won’t solve all of those problems, but at least it means every call you make to a friend on a different network won’t automatically be downgraded to plain old circuit-switched voice conversation.

Image (2) stock-tincans.jpg for post 31543

The really big advantages, however, will come when carriers start layering chat, presence notifications, file transfers and even video over these new VoLTE frameworks. [company]Verizon[/company], for instance, launched VoLTE in September with a FaceTime-like video chat capability that will work between any of its VoLTE handsets. That’s great if everyone you know happens to be a Verizon customer and has a new VoLTE-capable handset, but until we get interoperability those services will be trapped with their carrier’s individual networks.

You can think of VoLTE as SMS at the beginning of the millennium. All 2G phones had the ability to send and receive text messages, but because every carrier was using its own proprietary technology, there was no guarantee that any message to sent to another carrier’s network would ever be received (imagine if Gmail users could only send email to other Gmail users). When the U.S. mobile industry finally got its act together and standardized SMS, we finally saw the explosion in text messaging already witnessed in other parts of the world.

VoLTE will follow a similar path. What we’re seeing today are in essence proprietary communications services similar to over-the-top communication apps like Skype, Tango and FaceTime. But as carriers work together and plug into standards like the GSM Association’s Rich Communications Suite, we’ll see the applications become more universally interoperable and ultimately more useful to the average smartphone owner.

That means we’re going to need more than just [company]AT&T[/company] and Verizon fiddling around the interoperability lab to make this whole VoLTE thing work. Verizon CTO Tony Melone said that while AT&T and Verizon are playing a duet for these initial trials, Verizon looks “forward to working with other operators as VoLTE continues to grow.”