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Verizon preps FaceTime-like calling feature for later in year

Verizon will migrate voice services from older CDMA network to LTE by year's end, enabling video calling, other features.

Verizon will soon offer a video calling service over its LTE network that will work like Apple's FaceTime app.

Video chatting with far-flung family members could get even easier for Verizon wireless customers.

Verizon executives said Tuesday that the company will be launching a FaceTime-like video calling service later this year as part of its nationwide rollout of voice over LTE. The new service, which will be similar to Apple's FaceTime application or Skype's video calling functionality, will let people make voice calls on their phones, the executives said during a briefing with press.

The video calling service is enabled by Verizon's shift to put its voice service onto its LTE data network. Today, Verizon transmits voice calls over the traditional circuit-switched CDMA network. And subscribers use the newer IP-based 4G LTE network to access the Internet and other "data" services. The voice over LTE, or VoLTE, service enables Verizon to use the data network to transmit voice services like it transmits data. And in so doing, the company is able to offer services that look more like what so-called "over-the-top" Internet app developers have offered over the open Internet.

Apple's FaceTime and Skype's video calling services use Wi-Fi or cellular data connections rather than the traditional voice network to send video calls over the Internet. As Verizon moves its voice functionality away from its older circuit-switched technology to its IP data network, it's also enabling this similar video calling service over its cellular data connections.


Verizon representatives didn't discuss how the video calling feature would be billed. Today, when subscribers use Apple's FaceTime or Skype's video calling, services they either use Wi-Fi data services, where data usage is often unlimited and free, or they use their cellular data service, in which case the video call is just "data" consumed as part of the subscriber's monthly data plan. Verizon could keep track of these video calling sessions separately as it does today for voice calls and text messaging, or it could lump the usage in with a customer's other data usage.

Even though Verizon says the service will be available nationwide at launch, there will be some limitations to the service, at least initially. Just like with FaceTime or Skype, both parties using the video calling service will have to be using a device that's compatible with the service. In the case of Verizon, that means, at least initially, that both people will need to be using a VoLTE-enabled device on the Verizon network.

On the call with reporters Tuesday, Verizon Vice President of Mobile and Internet Services Brian Higgins said the company will soon be selling VoLTE compatible devices. But he said subscribers with older 4G LTE phones may not be out of luck. Some of these devices will also get software upgrades to make them VoLTE compatible and thus able to leverage the new video calling service. Verizon is integrating the video functionality into the phone's dialer, which means people should be able to launch video calls directly from their touchscreen keypads on their smartphones. In other words, users won't have to launch a separate app in order to make a video call the way they must when using a third-party app.

The new service is all part of Verizon's strategy to roll out voice services over its LTE data network. The company has stated previously that it plans to have VoLTE service available later this year. And on Tuesday, executives reiterated that time frame, but they gave no specifics about when exactly the service would launch. That said, they commented that it will be available nationwide once they begin offering VoLTE, which means the video calling service will also be available nationwide on its first day.

Another new feature enabled by Voice over LTE is HD voice, which is a marketing term used by wireless carriers to indicate improved voice quality over a voice over LTE connection.

Verizon's announcement comes just days after AT&T said it is also launching voice over LTE service. The company said last week that it will launch VoLTE on a limited basis starting May 23. The service will be available on the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, in select cities. AT&T has not said whether it will also offer a FaceTime-like video service using VoLTE. But it has mentioned that it will support HD voice, which will provide better-quality voice calls.

Sprint and T-Mobile are also expected to offer VoLTE, though the exact time frame for these carriers is not yet known.