Ahead of its proposed acquisition by BT, the UK’s largest cellco, EE, is certainly not falling victim to the lethargy that often afflicts companies when they are in pre-merger limbo. The company was confirmed to have the country’s largest LTE network by a recent study from regulator Ofcom, and as well as adding carrier aggregation and other new features to its 4G infrastructure, it is also trying to keep a step ahead of rivals in its services. In the past week it has launched its native Voice over WiFi offering, ahead of competitors (though 3UK offers it through an app); and has confirmed its new mobile TV option, another step towards a quad play strategy which will, of course, be transformed once it is joined with incumbent telco BT.
EE has become the first operator in the UK to launch native WiFi calling, and says over 5m citizens will be able to access the service by this summer, though uptake will be governed more by device support than network reach – currently only a few smartphones support WiFi Callling, and the service will initially be available only on the Microsoft Lumia 640 and the new Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. However, Apple supports WiFi Calling in iOS, and operators such as Sprint and T-Mobile in the US are working to make the function available on the iPhones, which should boost consumer acceptance.
WiFi Calling, or native voice over WiFi – controlled from the carrier’s IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) like its cellular IP cousin, VoLTE – has recently gained significant profile among mobile operators looking to defend their traditional voice and messaging revenue streams from over-the-top alternatives like Skype. The operators argue that their services will have superior quality of service, as well as many add-on functions enabled by the IMS and by Rich Communications Services (RCS), and that network-integrated voice will have significant advantages over OTT.
More basically, but perhaps more compellingly, WiFi Calling uses the phone’s native dialler and messaging features so the user keeps their number, and the recipient does not have to be on the same service.
It remains to be seen whether they can convince the Skype-using public of this – and whether they can monetize their rich, HD-enabled communications offerings, or just use them as a loss-leader, to slow the drift to OTT and keep customers tied into their brands and networks.
For EE and other early adopters, WiFi Calling is a complement to VoLTE, though for some operators it will be a stepping stone, if they have deployed an IMS but do not yet have broad LTE coverage or working VoLTE. It can fill gaps in VoLTE coverage, saving users from having to fall back to 2G/3G, or it can address holes in those networks too. EE said its new service will be relevant to about 4m people who lose their mobile signal in at least one room in their home, based on research in which it found that a quarter of UK residents work from home at least one day a week, and one-fifth of those people lose mobile connectivity at some point in the day.
Deploying WiFi Calling is a complex process – one of the disadvantages, in terms of the carrier business model, compared with OTT. EE’s launch was delayed from late 2014 after some deployment issues – the firm had to add 17 new systems to enable the legacy circuit-switched networks to interoperate with IMS. VoLTE is an even bigger project, and EE is looking to launch that later this year.
EE CEO Olaf Swantee said: “Losing coverage at home is a major frustration, and WiFi Calling will make a real difference to millions of customers across the UK, from basement flats in London to the most rural homes in the country. Our customers want to be able to call and text no matter where they are, and they don’t want to have to think about which app they need to use or if their friends have a particular third party service.”
Meanwhile, EE is also launching a streaming video service for its mobile phone customers. The service, called EE Film Club, will offer subscribers access to the Wuaki TV app movie library, with each movie costing £1 to download.
“More people than ever before are downloading and streaming movies so they can watch at home or on the go,” said Pippa Dunn, chief marketing officer at EE. “With one in three UK adults enjoying digital entertainment every week – and this number is only going to grow – our viewing habits are clearly evolving.”
The movie rental service is available to EE customers in the UK. Subscribers will be able to launch movies using Wuaki.TV apps and via a browser and will also be able to use the service on a TV set with EE’s newly launched EE TV box. Wuaki.TV offers a library of releases from Hollywood studios, including Warner, Disney, Sony and Fox. EE called Wuaki.TV Europe’s “fastest growing digital entertainment streaming service”.
“We have already seen phenomenal growth in our customer base as mobile device streaming soars,” said Vincent Petersen, UK country director at Wuaki.TV. “We know that almost a third of our customers already stream their movies to mobile and tablet devices highlighting that EE and Wuaki.tv are perfect partners.” EE is also planning to expand access to its TV service to its cellular network. That will enable EE TV subs to stream live TV to mobile devices outside the home.
EE TV launched last year as a free add-on for its broadband subscribers. The service is currently limited to streaming inside the home, either to the TV set via a net top or to smartphones and tablets on the home WiFi network