VoLTE may sound like the French version of a hybrid electric-petrol automobile. Instead it is a promising new technology that may change the telecom landscape in India and even protect a sometimes-beleaguered industry from the spectre of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) players such as Skype and WhatsApp.
There has been a spate of announcements of companies introducing VoLTE phones to the market. LG has announced several. Telecom colossus Reliance Jio -- which was born a juggernaut thanks to being spawned by the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, scion to his father's immense fortunes -- has also announced its VoLTE phones. "But what on earth is VoLTE?" ask many Indians who haven't been able to savour the magic of 4G to begin with. "And why do we need it?"
4G LTE is a data-only networking technology that much of the world is racing towards, allowing for blazing speeds of internet connectivity on their smartphones (at least with respect to 3G). The problem is, 4G is voiceless, compared with 2G and 3G which were designed mainly to carry voice calls but were re-jigged to support data. And for telcos in India that spells doom since there is primarily a voice market.
This means that any telco offering 4G today, as do the Indian biggies Airtel, Reliance, and Vodafone, have to piggy-back it along with voice onto existing lower frequencies such as 800 MHz and 1800 MHz. These bands are also hosting 2G and 3G, providing not exactly the kind of streamlined technology backbone you would want to power your way into the future.
What VoLTE's technology does is eliminate this piggybacking by sending voice traffic over data pipes -- kind of like Skype, but we'll get to that later -- providing you with voice calls that are at a whole new and improved HD level of quality. "The difference between a voice call made over VoLTE and one using the traditional CDMA network is like the difference between talking through a tin can connected with string and a full symphony in CD quality," said Roger Entner, lead analyst at Recon Analytics to CNet. "It's night and day."
For a market such as India with frequent call drops and terrible reception this could be revolutionary. But right now, the infant 4G is only equipped for what it was meant to be in the first place: data.
Don't get fooled Indians -- you may be surfing away on a pretty quick 4G network but all your voice calls are using older 3G and 2G networks thanks to your 4G phones that still have the circuitry to deal with the older systems. Which means increased costs in managing all these disparate networks -- hence the need for VoLTE.
There are other advantages to using VoLTE -- especially for a largely urban Indian public who use their phones for practically everything these days, and who are the world's largest average daily consumers of video. One is the ability to use data services while talking, which you cannot do today. These, as the CNet piece points out, range from normal stuff like surfing the net to things like video calling, real time language translation, and video voicemail which will all become reality in India in the next few years. These can be launched directly from the phone's native dialler without going through a separate app route.
But they may not be enough to prevent the insidious march of VoIP.
Battling the VoIP threat
Today, incursions from VoIP services like Skype and WhatsApp haven't done much to dent the voice-based revenues of telecom operators in India as yet. This is largely because of poor reception and the inability of data connections on which these services invariably ride on to provide a seamless and quality experience. With 4G this is going to change -- hence the huge outcry by Indian telcos who want to charge VoIP players who the telcos see as riding on their coattails, spooked by the potential carnage that they see down the line as 4G becomes the mainstay.
Thus, VoLTE, as this article explains, can march in as a much-needed knight in shining armour to the telcos. Now, with VoLTE, operators will be able to lower their existing rock-bottom rates even further, make the experience integrate seamlessly with the telco's dashboard on the handset, and eventually use their 2G and 3G connections for other lines of emerging business in the Internet of Things arena.
"I believe VoLTE is a major opportunity for Indian telcos to at least partially recover the market they have lost to OTTs," said Deepak Kumar, the founder analyst of market-research firm BusinessandMarket. "These developments are part of the bigger changes taking place in the industry like IP-fication and upgrading of the network. Once these technological improvements pick up, the telcos are likely to experiment with VoLTE to defend their turf."
That doesn't mean that implementing VoLTE is a cinch, or that it may be a sure-shot in protecting Indian telecoms' voice revenues. After all, the unwieldy sprawl of frequencies and data speeds (2G, 3G and 4G) on offer hardly make for a cost-efficient, streamlined, and seamless solution which these companies will need in an intensely competitive market with incredible cost pressures.
If they do get it right, however, it could be the best thing that ever happened to them.