How cellphone calling is going all Internet

voip lead image

Samsung Galaxy S5 Wi-Fi Calling Settings screenshot

Credit: T-Mobile

It isn’t just wireline voice calls that are shifting to IP. Voice calls over wireless mobile phones are too, in a big way.

Wireless carrier EE, in the UK, recently announced that it is about to let customers make regular mobile calls over Wi-Fi. Big deal, you may say: we’ve been making app-driven VoIP calls over mobiles for years, with Skype, and the like.

Well what’s interesting is that EE’s solution will be seamless. For the first time in the UK, you won’t need an app. It’ll just happen — using the phone’s stock dialer.

The idea is aimed at providing voice service in spotty coverage areas.

In the U.S., T-Mobile already has a virtually seamless Wi-Fi calling option on some phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S5. The idea is that you can select defaulting options in a Wi-Fi Calling Settings menu to use Wi-Fi for calls if cellular connectivity is unavailable.

Other MNO, or Mobile Network Operator, IP solutions are available from various carriers. They involve app interaction, though. An MNO in the UK called Three has a VoIP app that went live this week. MNO O2 has had one for a while.

So what’s going on here?

The cynics among us are going to say that all this Wi-Fi IP calling is a rouse to distract government eyeballs from the fact that vast swaths of the developed world doesn’t have wireless phone service, and that MNOs haven’t done what they said they’d do in exchange for the valuable spectrum, which was meant to provide mobile phone service to everyone.

In effect, they’re saying MNO-branded Wi-Fi VoIP is a cheap alternative to difficult, geographically-remote build-outs. Run the calls down someone else’s pipe. Let them do the build-out.

What in fact is really going on, if I were being fair—which is hard, because I’ve just paid my phone bill—is that this is the iceberg tip of a massive paradigm shift away from analog calling, at every level across the board.

It’s not just a shift from PSTN, or Public Switched Telephone Network, in favor of IP-based calling, either. PSTN is the old-school wireline circuit that uses copper wires for analog voice. Half of residential U.S. wireline service is VoIP, according to a recent FCC report.

But all calling, including mobile, is going IP.

Apple

Kevin Fitchard, writing in a June Gigaom article, spotted a crucial bullet point in a list of capabilities presented to the media at Apple’s WWDC 2014, a developers conference, that said that Apple’s upcoming, likely fall release, of its next mobile operating system, iOS 8, would have built-in support for Wi-Fi calling. No support from Apple would be a hindrance to adoption.

MVNOs

We’re seeing MVNO’s, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators, pinning entire business plans based on Wi-Fi calling. MVNOs are the companies that have historically bought minutes and capacity from MNOs. MVNOs then re-sell to end users under their own branding.

Scratch Wireless and Republic Wireless are hybrid MVNOs, using Sprint, that switch automatically between VoIP and the mobile network. They pitch users that the savings—generated by free Wi-Fi calling, as opposed to greedy network calls—are passed along to the customer.

VoLTE Services

VoLTE is the shifting of all elements of the mobile network call to the data path. It’s made possible because bandwidth is now spunky enough for voice calls to be routed over the LTE Internet portion of the carrier’s network—making the 2G and 3G voice parts of the network redundant. In other words, everything goes over the data element.

MNOs will be pitching VoLTE to consumers as a form of “HD” calling. But, in fact, what it does, in addition to sounding a bit better, is reduce the amount of networks that MNOs need to maintain, according to Ryokurin, in a comment on an Engadget article on the subject.

MNOs have had problems getting it to work properly, though. But it’s so important—as with replacing cumbersome analog PSTN circuits with packets—that the carriers aren't going to give up on it. Wide-scale deployments have been delayed with missed deadlines.

A bit of history

I remember the days, not so long ago, when us Angelinos, dependent on communications technology, would dread the onslaught of a pounding rainy season.

It wasn’t because we don’t need rain here — LA is semi-arid, and almost desert — or that we’re wussies who are scared of getting wet. Admittedly, Angelinos do drive faster in the rain. But that’s so they can get home quickly, before they have an accident.

The dread, though, was because the phone lines would short out.

Amazingly, Ma Bell used to use paper and cotton there as insulators, a lineman told me. Presumably, the system was designed in the dry, non-rainy season.

Well, all I can say is: I hope the engineers of the IP systems check the weather forecast from time-to-time.

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