Verizon Wireless customers will soon be able to experience clearer and crisper phone calls and a Skype-like video chat service, the company said Tuesday.
Verizon is preparing the nationwide launch of its voice over LTE service in the coming weeks, which will enable these new services, executives from the company said. As part of the launch, Verizon customers will get access to a new high-definition voice service, which greatly improves the quality of the sound of a voice call. Customers will also be able to make or accept video phone calls from their device without launching an app to do so.
"Once you experience the HD quality voice, you don't want to go back," Greg Dial, executive director of mobile services for Verizon, said in a pre-briefing and demonstration of the new service with reporters. "The tight integration of the video calling feature is also significant. You can launch it right from the dialer. There's no opening a separate app."
Dial explained the video calling capability is built into the service. Verizon will not charge extra for the video chat service, which looks very similar to Apple's FaceTime app, or the HD-quality voice service. HD voice calls will continue to count as regular voice calls over Verizon service plans. For instance, customers who pay for a set amount of voice minutes will still count the VoLTE calls against that allotment. And customers on a share plan will be able to make unlimited voice calls using the voice-over-LTE service just as they would using the traditional phone service.
The video calls will be counted as data. This means that calls made using the video chat feature will count against a customer's data package.
The actual date for the launch of the service as well as the devices that will initially support it have not yet been announced. But Mike Haberman, vice president for the network for Verizon Wireless, said subscribers should stay tuned for more details on the timing of the launch as well as on which devices will initially get the service.
Adding the voice-over-LTE service, or VoLTE as it's known, will require an over-the-air software update to devices. Haberman and Dial demonstrated the high-definition voice calls and the video chat service on an LG G2. Still, the executives would not comment specifically on which devices will get the software first.
The move to VoLTE is one that every major carrier is working toward. AT&T and T-Mobile have already announced their own VoLTE services. AT&T's service is available in a few select markets. T-Mobile offers its service nationwide. Verizon also plans a nationwide launch.
How does it work?
Today, Verizon and other wireless providers transmit voice calls over the traditional circuit-switched networks, and subscribers use the newer IP-based 4G LTE network to access the Internet and other "data" services. The VoLTE, service enables wireless operators to use the data network to transmit voice services in the same way they transmit data. And in so doing, the companies are able to offer high quality voice calls, as well as, services that look more like what so-called "over-the-top" Internet app developers have offered over the open Internet.
Treating voice like a data service on the 4G data network makes wireless providers' networks operationally more efficient. One source of efficiency is that the transition away from circuit-switched technology to VoLTE will allow them to reuse older spectrum initially allocated for circuit-switched voice service. Once that spectrum is freed up, the companies can use it to deploy more high-speed data services. This increase in capacity ultimately allows for faster service for subscribers.
For consumers, as mentioned earlier, the two main benefits of the technology are improved voice quality, known as HD voice, and the ability to offer other "embedded" services, such as the video chat service that Verizon is launching.
"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. "It's night and day."
Entner explained that the noise-cancelling properties for VoLTE are "spectacular." And he added, "You no longer hear the cars racing by when you're talking on a busy street."
But the service isn't without a few catches. For one, the video chat feature and the HD voice will only work when calls are placed between two Verizon customers if each subscriber has a VoLTE-capable phone, and if they are within Verizon's LTE network footprint. As the name of the service suggests, the calls are placed over the 4G LTE network rather than the traditional CDMA network.
Currently, VoLTE calls cannot be made between different wireless operator networks. So even if a Verizon VoLTE-capable device is calling an AT&T VoLTE device, for now the two devices will not be able to use the technology for the call. Instead, the call will revert to the older circuit-switched technology.
The other caveat is that Verizon customers must have the VoLTE capability activated on their devices. Verizon is giving subscribers the option to use VoLTE or not and the service can be switched on and off in the device settings just like the option to use Wi-Fi or not.
Haberman said that the company is offering the choice, despite the fact that the voice quality is superior to traditional circuit-switched calling, because the company recognizes that not every customer may be willing to try it.
"We strongly believe that some people will be ready for the transition," Haberman said. "But we wanted to make sure that people who feel their current voice service is sufficient won't have to change."
While there is some truth to this reasoning, the real reason may have more to do with the fact that VoLTE is still an emerging technology. It is completely different from the technology used in the traditional voice network. And as the service is rolled out, there are likely to be glitches and hiccups, which could disrupt phone calls. Haberman acknowledged this as a potential issue and said that indeed that is one reason why using the service is optional for customers.
"CDMA has been around for 17 years," he said. "It's very predictable."
He added, "There can be cases, like in your home, where the VoLTE experience may not quite be the same as you were getting with CDMA. VoLTE uses different antennas. It's a totally different technology."
VoLTE is the future
Still, VoLTE is the future of voice communications on all wireless networks, whether wireless customers want it or not. In fact, there have been rumors that Apple may include the feature in the upcoming iOS 8 launch for the iPhone 6.
Once Verizon and other carriers get more experience in real-world deployments, they will refine the technology. And they will eventually make the service interoperable, so that someday every wireless call will sound crystal clear.
For now, the carriers, including Verizon will be busy deploying the service with as little disruption as they can muster. Most experts agree that the HD voice enabled by VoLTE will offer a noticeable difference in terms of the quality of the voice call and that consumers will appreciate it. But few think it will be a top differentiator in terms of choosing a service provider.
"Consumers will appreciate the improved voice calls," said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research. "But is it something they will value beyond faster data? Probably not."