VoLTE and the future of voice – innovation avoidance

Written by on September 25, 2015 in Guest Blog with 0 Comments

Whispers telephoneFive years ago, I started talking about the Future of Voice, and then subsequently started running workshops with Martin Geddes on the topic. At the time, I found it quite hard to find the right people at telcos/service providers to talk to. Few were aware of concepts such as embedded voice/video, new user-interaction models, developer platforms, or a “post-telephony” world where we all had many ways to communicate, choosing the best tool for a given job.

There was no “product manager” for telephony, and nobody with responsibility for communications services innovation. There was no “VP, Voice” – it was just assumed to be an inherent background task owned by everyone and nobody. There might have been folk in the enterprise unit looking at UC and conferencing, international dial people scared of Skype, and a couple of people in the labs wondering what to do about voice on LTE, but that was about it. Oh, and of course at a handful of operators, there was sometimes some hapless soul trying to push RCS, either internally or at GSMA.

Then, about 2-3 years ago, there was a shift. Various people with titles like “Head of Advanced Communications” started popping up, roughly as the tidal wave of smartphones, messenger and VoIP apps, developer platforms and so on started to take off. A few people had heard of WebRTC, some operators were tinkering with their own early “telco-OTT” comms apps (remember T-Mobile Bobsled?), developer tools were being pushed, and there were signs that some actual innovative thinking was taking place. (And those few hapless souls were still pushing RCS, of course).

But in recent months, that glimmer of positivity seems to have dimmed again somewhat. The bulk of telco announcements recently concerning “advanced” communications has been anything but “advanced”. It’s just been breathless announcements about VoLTE or WiFi-Calling, as if they actually changed anything. (And, yes, a few hapless souls are still pushing RCS. Although rather fewer – quite a lot of them have finally escaped the Joyn event horizon). See this recent post of mine for an example.

Let’s be clear – VoLTE has four benefits:

  • Offers a solution for 4G-only operators with no 2G/3G or MVNO deal for fallback
  • Allows simultaneous voice & data on 4G, rather than forcing 3G fallback for data during calls
  • Gives faster call setup time (nice, but the sort of minor feature upgrade that would have been quietly introduced in v6.3 for any other voice app)
  • Might eventually help with spectrum refarming. This is equivalent to fixed operators being able to sell big old exchange offices in cities. It allows eventual asset sales / re-use. Eventually.

Beyond that, there’s no new revenue, no change to the basic vanilla 130yr-old format of “phone calls”, and ironically for a standard, very little working interoperability with other operators’ VoLTE. It’s an expensive “forced purchase” as the industry was too slow/complacent to come up with something better, and painted itself into a corner. It’s not going to stop people using other communications apps or services, it’s not going to halt revenue declines or reverse “peak telephony”, and it’s still going to take years to transition the bulk of people from circuit. (And no, HD voice is not special – it’s been around on 3G for years, and is another minor feature upgrade nobody pays extra for).

WiFi-Calling is no better. It’s a slightly better implementation of a 10-year old idea, basically UMA v2.0. It gives better indoor coverage for some users in some areas. It covers for a lack of cell-sites or sub-1GHz frequency bands. In other words, it’s window-dressing, not something substantively different. There’s probably 4-500m+ people doing some sort of voice/video communications over WiFi anyway, using 3rd-party apps. It can in no way be described as “advanced communications”.

Some (fortunately few) are talking about ViLTE – which is VoLTE’s ugly video-calling sister. It’s pointless. The last thing to do with video is to “call” someone like a phone-call, unexpectedly and interruptively. There isn’t even a legacy user-base to pretend to migrate, and it’s clearly not as functional / cool / integrated / well-designed as the 100 other video-chat apps and APIs available, even without the fact that WebRTC means that all apps can integrate video if they need it. I’ll skip over RCS as I’m sure you’ve got the picture by now – but read this if you’re uncertain.

And this is the problem. All of a sudden “advanced communications” means VoLTE and WiFi-calling, with a side-order of irrelevant video/RCS. That’s just a convenient excuse not to do any proper innovation. They both just deliver plain-old phone calls, but on different networks. Yes, it’s nice to have better indoor coverage, but covering up for existing deficiencies is hardly worth a press release. It’s like adding a bagel function to a bread-toaster* and claiming a major step forward in cooking technology.

In my view, VoLTE and WiFi-calling are “make-work”. They make telco engineering and core network groups look busy. They give an excuse to vendors to try and finally sell their IMS infrastructure – albeit in NFV-based versions at lower cost. The policy vendors get a look-in too, so they can finally prioritise something with network QoS. And there’s the nice comforting mythology of ViLTE and RCS on the horizon to continue the gravy-train.

And it gives an equally comforting mythology of “level playing fields” to take to regulators. That’s nonsense, too. (See here)

Meanwhile, genuine innovation in voice, video, messaging, contextual comms, APIs, developer platforms, enterprise communications, CEBP, WebRTC, cool mobile comms apps, social voice, personal broadcasting, telemedicine, IoT-integrated comms and 101 other areas is carrying on regardless. But on the Internet, or on mobile, or in enterprise cloud-based comms.

But telcos and vendors, with their nice warm VoLTE/WiFi-Calling comfort blankets, can delude themselves they’re doing something “advanced” because they’re spending money and doing “stuff”. But it’s simply an excuse for failing to make hard choices. It’s “going through the motions”.

CEOs and CFOs should call their bluff. If it’s just “phone calls” they might as well outsource the voice infrastructure in its entirety. And telecom regulators should ignore the protestations about so-called “OTTs”, when telcos are doing nothing to try to compete or meet modern customers’ communications needs and purposes. It’s the Internet and app providers that are employing a “design” mindset here and need protection, not vice-versa.

Now this is not true of all telcos, nor all SP business units / teams though. There’s still a lot of interest in doing cool stuff with WebRTC, a number of interesting mobile apps by telcos, some interest in contextual communications and developer APIs. Telefonica TokBox, Orange Libon, Telenor appear.in, WebRTC platforms from AT&T and NTT & SKT, Comcast’s Xfinity Share, Swisscom iO and various others. For many of these it’s still early days – but that’s the type of trial-and-error, agile, customer-centric approach that’s so desperately needed.

But usually, those initiatives are done by the telcos’ more peripheral units – labs teams, enterprise arm, international opco’s, TV/content business, standalone developer-platform units, internal MVNOs, so-called “digital services” groups and assorted other teams of free-thinkers unencumbered by legacy mindsets or GSMA/3GPPP/ATIS/ETSI doctrine. Often, they have internal battles with the legacy fiefdoms that don’t want to risk cannibalisation – or being made to look over-resourced and slow. Politics wins too often. There’s also various MVNOs and smaller MNOs, from Truphone to Google Fi, that are trying to do something different as well.

Something similar is occurring in parts of the vendor space too. GenBand has its Kandy PaaS business which focuses on WebRTC for enterprise apps. Ericsson’s Labs team is working on the OpenWebRTC mobile stack, and assorted non-telco uses of voice/video. Metaswitch is repurposing IMS as its cloud-based open-source platform Clearwater, encouraging tinkering and developer innovation.

But plenty of other vendors keep recycling the tired old marketing lines on their ghost-written “content marketing” blogs or webinars about “How VoLTE and WiFi-calling & RCS will help you beat the OTTs“. It’s cynical clickbait, and either self-delusional or aimed at deluding their customers. No one has any case-studies – or even a decent argument – about winning back users from WhatsApp, Snapchat, Talko, Wire, Periscope, Slack, Skype & Skype4Business or the 10001 other cool services.

This needs to change. Yes, VoLTE and WiFi-Calling have some value for some operators, mostly because they’re forced into it. If they can reclaim spectrum, great. But they should NOT be excuses for inaction elsewhere. They do not redefine communications. They do not open up new revenue streams, or significantly help loyalty. They are, at best, strengthening the walls of the final core communications fortress, so telcos can defend 10% of their former territory against the invaders. Actually, the analogy is flawed – perhaps “liberators” is better, given the alternative are welcomed by users with open arms.The GSMA’s so-called “Network 2020 Green Button Promise” is a pre-eminent example of this woefully narrow vision.

VoLTE and WiFi-calling should represent maybe 20% of operators’ activity in future communications, not 80%. ViLTE & RCS should both be zero %. The bulk of effort should be on genuine innovation – or else acquisition / partnerships with those who can do it instead.

Yes, this post is confrontational and will no doubt put a few noses out of joint, including those at some of my own clients. But this is important – there’s no value in rearranging the telephony deckchairs, when there’s a vast iceberg of contextual communications, design-led apps and WebRTC hoving into view. Making a phone call on WiFi isn’t going to help.

This article was first published here, and is reproduced with kind permission. You can follow Dean on Twitter, here.

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Dean Bubley

About the Author

About the Author: Dean is founder and director of Disruptive Analysis and a prominent, influential & outspoken technology industry analyst and consultant, specialising in the telecoms, mobile and wireless sector. He speaks at 30+ conferences per year and offers strategic advisory services to operators & vendors? He can be contacted at dean.bubley@disruptive-analysis.com. .

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