Nature of mobile calls changing as VoLTE arrives

4g mobile signal©iStock.com/D3Damon

AS THREE prepare to start rolling out calls over 4G, research shows that as many as one in four people with a smartphone don't make even one standard voice call a week.

Figures from Ipsos Mori for Deloitte show that while 96% of smartphone users said they made at least one voice call a week in 2012, that's dropped to 75% over the past three years.

Instead, people are increasingly using their phones to communicate via instant messaging, social networks, and even email and text message - and we're spending up to 90 minutes a day on data-based activities.

But among those who do make voice calls, there's been a rise in the number and length of calls being made - and more calls are being made over the mobile operators' data networks.

Data calling

We're not talking about 4G calling just yet - but thanks in part to services like Skype and WhatsApp it's entirely possible for people to make voice calls using their phone's data connections (voice over IP, or VoIP) rather than the dedicated voice networks.

And the increase in VoIP calls has been dramatic: in 2012, just 3% of smartphone users used VoIP; last year that had risen to 5%. But this year, 15% of smartphone users are using VoIP services.

The rise has no doubt been buoyed by the introduction of wi-fi calling on several of the UK's mobile networks this year, ahead of their efforts to get calls over 4G - or VoLTE - working reliably.

Even now, all the talk about 4G is in terms of how much faster it is for data services, and how wide or how strong the signal is in various areas.

Given the explosion in apps allowing us to carry out large parts of our lives at the touch of a button, and without the need to speak to someone, this focus on data makes sense.

Deloitte point out in their report that "an app can replace the calls we would have formerly made to order a takeaway, request a taxi, book an appointment or make a bank transfer".

That's backed up by Ofcom's annual communications market review, published last month, which shows just how much more people with 4G services do on their phones.

But both Ofcom's figures and Deloitte's research show that while fewer of us are making calls, those of us who are talking are doing so for longer. VoIP has played a part in that - and VoLTE is closer than ever.

It's here

By April this year, three of the UK's Mobile Network Operators had announced plans to have VoLTE up and running within months, with Vodafone and EE aiming for a summer launch.

Three, meanwhile, were a little more concrete about a launch date, saying they would launch their 4G voice service in September of this year - and they appear to have delivered on that promise.

In fact, they're starting the roll out of their 4G Supervoice service over the 800MHz frequency, which they say will improve 4G coverage indoors and allow users to make VoLTE calls, from Friday September 10th.

It'll only be available to users with supported devices in 50 cities around the UK at first - although Three say that still means they'll have coverage over about 50% of the population.

By the end of the year they plan to have expanded coverage to 65% of the population, and the rest of us will be brought online during 2016.

Note mention of supported devices, though. At first that'll be limited to the LG G4, Samsung Galaxy S5 and S5 Mini; some iPhone users have been told the service will roll out to them from October 20th.

What about EE?

EE, meanwhile, have just announced the expansion of their VoLTE trial to cover the whole network; they're not quite ready to formally launch the service but say it's close.

Speaking to Telecoms.com, EE's Director of Network Services and Devices Tom Bennett said the operator would only make VoLTE available to customers "when it's on a par with, or better than, what customers are currently using".

One of the issues providers have had with VoLTE is that calls made using 4G haven't been able to switch to 2G or 3G. As soon as the 4G signal drops, so does the call.

EE have tackled this at least in part by focusing on getting as much of the UK covered as possible. Says Bennett:

"Our target for launch was 90% and we're now past that at 93%, so we're confident it can be a smooth experience."

The others

Their customers have been able to make calls over wi-fi since April, pipping Vodafone to the post.

At the time Vodafone could only say they'd be introducing it "soon" - and indeed, by May they were trumpeting that they'd be launching both wi-fi calling and VoLTE over the summer months.

But while users have indeed been able to make calls over wi-fi since early summer, a Vodafone blog post from early August revealed that their VoLTE service was still at the trial stage.

When the other networks were publically announcing their intended VoLTE deadlines earlier this year, O2 remained quiet.

They've recently started testing their own integrated wi-fi calling service, and VoLTE trials are expected to take place during the final three months of this year.

O2's customers have been able to make calls over wi-fi via an app since 2013, but the integrated version of the service will only be launched at the same time as VoLTE so users can switch seamlessly between the two mid call.

Whichever network we're with, there are bound to be launch issues, so it'll be some time before we know what kind of impact VoLTE will have.

But alongside the talk of faster connections and better call quality is another advantage: operators say not having to switch between networks so often will help our phones last longer between charges.

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