Voice over LTE was developed as a standardized way for operators to transmit voice over new data-oriented LTE networks, meaning that voice services can use the higher speeds and quality of service that LTE provides over its 2G and 3G predecessors.
Recently Infonetics Research forecasted that there would be 12 commercial VoLTE networks by the end of 2013, while Arc Chart predicts that the number of VoLTE users worldwide will stand at 74 million by 2016.This is partly based on the successes seen in Asia Pacific, particularly with SK Telekom, which counted 3.6 million VoLTE subscribers by April of 2013. Despite this, while some operators are sitting back and taking a “wait and see” approach, it looks like the public safety market will provide some of the leaders and early adopters in the global push towards VoLTE.
Already in the United States, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Institute for Telecommunication Sciences has brought together a panel of 15 public safety practitioners from 14 agencies and jurisdictions and found that in the majority of cases, VoLTE voice quality is superior to that of existing equipment. For obvious reasons the speed and clarity of LTE and VoLTE are vital to public safety practitioners.
After the events of Sept. 11, the NTIA worked to establish a communications framework to support national public safety. The goal of the network, dubbed The First Responder Network Authority, is to “provide emergency responders with the first nationwide high-speed network dedicated to public safety using Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless technology.” FirstNet will operate on dedicated broadband spectrum, and will require participation from both private and public entities to support the measure. For its part, FirstNet will eventually supply VoLTE. Indeed, the FCC itself has suggested FirstNet should support VoLTE services. This network is one of the strongest indications that the public safety industry will likely be an early VoLTE adopter.
Other countries and other regions are finding or will find the same answers, which means that more and more public safety network VoLTE deployments will be springing up around the world, taking the lead over most mobile operators. Certainly in the long-term, there are few viable choices for the public safety market besides VoLTE.
Other technologies like over-the-top services to provide voice using voice over Internet Protocol is not a viable approach, because VoIP is a best effort application. As Peter Jarich, research director of wireless infrastructure and converged core at Current Analysis, says in FierceGovernmentIT, “it doesn’t come with the reliability, it doesn’t come with the quality” that current public safety voice service has.
Also providing other applications like SMS, IM, presence, which are very necessary for public safety deployments are easily possible using VoLTE compared to OTT where for each of the service a different solution has to be integrated. Moreover, with SMS being used now-a-days for emergency services also, data for emergency services is not seen to be left behind. A 3G fallback would not be a viable solution for emergency services. VoLTE defines a well-defined architecture for providing emergency services, supplementary services, advanced services, charging, etc. For public safety, group calling is another very important need. All members of disaster management need to be provided common instructions or need to communicate with one another in a group. This is very easily possible using VoLTE. Along with group calling, the images and other multimedia content can also be shared within a group. For public safety deployments, images have to be sent and received with great precision. They have to be seen up-to the dot level. High definition content over video calls makes it important to have VoLTE calls.
A further complication is that VoIP standards are proprietary, which means that public safety bodies are put in the uncomfortable and potentially expensive position of having to back a single company’s technology. Backing a single company’s technology is the position that the United Kingdom’s first responders find themselves in. In the United Kingdom the emergency services rely on Airwave Solutions’ TETRA network. Although it is a reliable and mature technology, it has two major downfalls. Firstly, “the TETRA system used by the [United Kingdom] is extremely expensive, and the home office is looking for ways to bring the costs down with a new system,” according to Gordon Shipley, program director of the U.K.’s Emergency Services Mobile Communication Programme housed under the U.K.’s Home Office, speaking in Radio Resource Magazine. Secondly, it is a narrow-band service, meaning that it cannot keep up with the increasingly data-heavy communications required by modern emergency services.
While VoLTE may or may not be the first port of call for the ESMCP for voice in the short-term, as it considers all its options and the state of readiness of U.K. LTE networks, assuming that the VoLTE ecosystem matures in a sensible way, it will have to be a strong contender. There is no doubt that there are challenges ahead for VoLTE to be a “slam-dunk” for public safety networks globally, but I believe there is sufficient momentum that many of the current issues will be resolved before too long.
Public safety bodies around the world may not necessarily want to advance too far ahead of their local commercial service providers. Nonetheless, the fact that they, necessarily, have to think years ahead to ensure the safety of the general public means that public safety bodies globally are thinking about VoLTE. Contrast this to the private sector where few people even know that VoLTE exists and it is far from a stretch to say that within as little as 24 months, we will see lots of strong case studies of thoughtful public safety bodies using VoLTE, innovating ahead of the commercial sector and quite possibly even ahead of the service provider community.
This article was originally published in RCR Wireless.