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What's happening with Voice Over LTE in Australia

Voice Over LTE, or VoLTE, is starting to appear on Australian 4G networks. But what is it, how do you get it and what will it do for you?

Mobile
Sarah Tew

Get ready, Australia, because your voice is getting an upgrade.

For those keeping an eye on phone network news, you might have started to see the term "Voice Over LTE" or VoLTE (pronounced "volty") in the second half of 2015.

Telstra offers VoLTE now, and Vodafone promises it will have it before Christmas. But what is it and why do you even want it? We've put together a simple guide to explain what you need to know about VoLTE.

What is VoLTE?

As the name suggests, VoLTE is about using the 4G spectrum to transmit voice calls instead of the voice networks that are currently used. If you've made a call without your phone up to your ear, you may have noticed that your network indicator will drop down from 4G to a slower 3G or HSDPA service. That's because at the moment 4G is mostly used for data in Australia, with voice traffic still going over 3G and 2G services. VoLTE instead treats the voice call like any other data sent over a 4G network, not unlike the way Wi-Fi calling sends a call over a wireless internet network.

What are the benefits?

So why are the big Australian telcos talking about it? What's so good about VoLTE?

  • Quality: The big benefit is call quality. Because a 4G network can carry so much more data, you can use it to deliver extremely high-quality calls with better reduction on background noise. Keep in mind that this is different from the HD Voice calls that have been available for a few years in Australia now. That function still uses 3G networks and you should see a step up in quality on a VoLTE call.
  • Speed: VoLTE calls should connect faster than traditional voice calls, although it's unlikely that the speed is going to be as impressive or as noticeable as the call quality changes. In some US run tests, calls connected in 2-4 seconds as opposed to 7 seconds.
  • Stay on 4G: As we said before, the moment when you make a call you'll drop off 4G. VoLTE preserves your connection, meaning that you can still get high-speed internet connectivity during a phone call, which could be handy in a lot of situations.
  • Rich communication services (RCS): While no one has any confirmed rollouts in Australia right now, VoLTE will make it easier to offer a variety of different RCS functionality. These could include things like file transfer, video voicemail, even real time language translating. While you can get these via separate apps right now, VoLTE connectivity could see this embedded as just another function of making a phone call.
  • Battery Life: Because your phone needs to switch networks to make a call, your battery can get drained from the repeated need to search for a different network and then connect to it. Again, this isn't likely to be a life-changing bonus, unless you're constantly making calls.

Who's offering it?

At the moment, you can only get VoLTE from Telstra, which began its service in mid-September. Telstra is looking to roll out a number of additional services including video calling over LTE and the ability to seamlessly switch between VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling.

Telstra also allows for high-quality calls to be made between a VoLTE handset and a Telstra NBN service. Telstra has initially rolled out VoLTE for post-paid customers, with business customers following and pre-paid after that. Telstra will offer VoLTE on the Apple iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6S and 6S Plus as well as at the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy Edge +.

As of the end of March 2016, VoLTE is now available on the Vodafone network in in Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Melbourne, Geelong, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra and Tasmania. The service is compatible with Sony's Z3 and Z5 phones, Samsung's Note 5 and Galaxy 6S, S6 Edge and S6 Edge Plus and the Apple iPhone SE, 6, 6 Plus, 6S and 6S Plus.

As of May 2016, Optus has begun rolling out VoLTE around its network. Postpaid and business customers in the Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra CBD areas will be first to get the new service. The Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are the first compatible phones for the Optus VoLTE offering.

Are there downsides?

The features all sound good but it can't all be sunshine and roses, can it?

Device compatibility right now is pretty low. These include the Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, along with the 6S and S6 Plus, as well some of the newer Samsung range. Only the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Edge + are listed by both Vodafone and Telstra.

Network interoperability is also looking to be a problem for some time to come. Over in the US, there are currently three carriers offering VoLTE. To make a call using the service you not only need two VoLTE capable phones, you also need both of them on the same network. AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are working towards making VoLTE calls work on different networks, but it's not something that was available at launch.

We requested comment from both Telstra and Vodafone regarding their own plans on interoperability. While neither replied with a formal comment, we understand from initial conversations that you will be able to VoLTE calls across networks with the associated call quality, but some features such as the faster connection speed may require further tweaks before full interoperability has been achieved.

As for coverage areas, the wheels of change roll slow and this is especially true with VoLTE. You'll not only need two compatible phones on the same network, you'll need to be in an area where VoLTE has been enabled. Coverage will no doubt expand quickly, but initially it'll be like the early days of 4G, with only select areas.

Conclusion

Despite the current caveats and potentially slow rollout of new features, VoLTE is undoubtedly a big shift for voice calling around Australia. Unless you're both a Telstra customer and an early adopter when it comes to smartphones, you're not likely to making crystal-clear calls just yet, but it won't be too long before VoLTE becomes the standard for most phone calls.

Updated May 9, 2016: Added information about the Optus and Vodafone rollouts.

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