Social media and AT&T and Verizon’s mobile ads would lead one to believe Apple invented Voice over LTE (VoLTE.) In reality, it’s the first Apple device consumers can use to both make phone calls and use the internet at fast 4G LTE speeds. The iPhone 5s and 5c and earlier iPhones couldn’t do this on Verizon and Sprint wireless networks, and only on AT&T's network by falling back to dreadfully slow 3G speeds.
Android users have long enjoyed simultaneous voice calls and the 4G internet because most Android smartphones have two chips and two antennas, one for the 4G mobile data network and the other for the old GSM/UMTS and CDMA2000 mobile voice networks. Now consumers using the iPhone 6 and Android smartphones equipped with VoLTE capability can make high-definition VoLTE calls and use the fast 4G LTE internet too.
Like most features Apple announces, many of the Android devices already have VoLTE capabilities built in, but the smartphone’s software needs an update by the carrier. Most Samsung smartphones were VoLTE-enabled since the Samsung Galaxy S III, announced almost two and a half years ago. AT&T introduced VoLTE with the Samsung S4 Mini last May. Crystal-clear VoLTE voice calls have not been available, though, because most mobile carrier networks hadn’t supported it yet.
VoLTE is a descendent of open internet innovation
Now that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have all announced VoLTE, carriers will update the newer Android smartphones with VoLTE because it’s good for consumers and will be even better for them. VoLTE is based on Voice over IP (VoIP) land line innovations from the late 1990s. At that time the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) refused to regulate calls made over the internet because the agency considered VoIP calls to be data transmitted freely over the open internet and ruling against the carriers who were precipitously losing telephone call revenues to VoIP competitors. Even though carriers voraciously objected, VoIP drove tremendous innovation by companies such as Cisco in the efficiency of the carriers’ infrastructure lowering costs.
Converting voice calls into data allowed calls to be compressed using as little as a tenth of the carriers’ networks that the old technology calls used. It created tremendous competition making land line calls cheap. The loss of telephone revenues drove carriers to become mobile carriers, internet service providers, and cable television networks to replace the lost revenue. VoIP also consolidated the networks into a single network when voice calls and data were transmitted through a single network. When carriers started sending telephone calls through their internet networks, they could decommission old land line infrastructure, cutting network management and operating costs.
In time, as 4G LTE become pervasive, mobile carriers will consolidate mobile voice and data into one mobile internet network and decommission older mobile voice networks so that they can realize the same types of efficiencies experienced in the transition to VoIP. There is a much greater benefit for carriers. All 4G LTE networks will free up the radio spectrum used by older mobile voice technologies. Radio spectrum can be thought of as data pipes through which mobile calls and data flow. Older mobile technologies consume radio spectrum pipes but transmit less data more slowly through them than newer 4G LTE broadband. The move to VoLTE will free radio spectrum for reuse with new technologies, supporting more mobile broadband users at higher speeds and lower costs.
What’s important for consumers
No more "whats" and "please repeats" during mobile calls. Mobile consumers will love VoLTE HD call quality. Consumers who live in an Apple bubble can believe it’s another Apple innovation. Android consumers will have to wait for their phones to be updated.
The FCC’s reconsideration to include the mobile internet in its pending open internet rules is also important for consumers. According to the New York Times, 120 million of the 300 million Americans subscribe to high-speed 4G LTE networks. VoLTE will accelerate the availability of the highest-speed mobile networks that the carriers have built at a feverish pace since 2010. Just as the FCC’s refusal to regulate VoIP calls stimulated competition and innovation, folding the mobile internet into net neutrality rules will accelerate competition and innovation in mobile markets, delivering wireless internet at speeds faster than most wired internet connections today.