Wi-Fi now carries more mobile traffic than cellular does, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast (2015 to 2020), which cites Maravedis’ research. The vast majority of that is data and video, but voice is a growing amount as mobile operators and end users realize the financial benefits of using Wi-Fi for telephony, too.
Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) isn’t a new concept. For example, vendors and operators such as Sprint, Taqua and Vocera have offered it for more than 15 years for applications such as nurse communications in hospitals.
But VoWi-Fi didn’t really start to expand out of vertical niches until 2014, when Apple added the capability to iOS 8. Around that time VoWi-Fi evolved into something more sophisticated: Wi-Fi calling, now offered by mobile operators such as EE, T-Mobile and Swisscom.
Seamlessness is one key way that Wi-Fi calling services are fundamentally different than VoWi-Fi services that have been around for more than a decade ago. VoWi-Fi services couldn’t hand off calls to a cellular network, or vice-versa, as users moved in and out of coverage. Wi-Fi calling services can, and this seamlessness encourages usage because customers don’t have to worry about dropping calls.
Another fundamental difference is that Wi-Fi calling doesn’t require a standalone app. Instead, customers use the same app for all calls, regardless of whether they use cellular or Wi-Fi. This encourages Wi-Fi calling usage in several ways. For example, they don’t have to download and learn an app, they can use a single contact list for all calls and people calling them can reach them at a single number.
But increased user-friendliness goes only so far in terms of convincing consumers and businesspeople to use Wi-Fi calling. For example, Wi-Fi calling also must provide call quality that’s at least as reliable and clear as cellular, including the newer HD Voice version. Quality of service and experience (QoS/QoE) also is another way for service providers to differentiate their Wi-Fi calling services.
One way to improve QoS/QoE is use “carrier-grade” 802.11 infrastructure, which has features and capabilities not found in traditional “best-effort” Wi-Fi gear. By the end of 2017, carrier-grade access points will start to outnumber best-effort ones, Maravedis predicts. By 2020, more than 90 percent of hotspots will be carrier grade.
Wi-Fi Calling’s Business Models and Opportunities
The iPhone’s support of Wi-Fi calling helped prompt more mobile operators, cable providers and others to create or expand Wi-Fi calling services. So did the vendor-agnostic technology of voice over LTE (VoLTE), which makes it easier for a mobile operator to offer Wi-Fi calling by providing the IP foundation that enables calls over both types of networks.
Additional factors are driving service provider interest and investment in Wi-Fi calling:
- For mobile operators, Wi-Fi calling is another way to offload traffic from cellular, thereby reducing the need to buy more infrastructure and spectrum. It’s also a way for them to provide voice roaming, such as for customers who want a low-cost alternative to cellular roaming. And if mobile operators don’t offer Wi-Fi calling as an option, they’ll continue to lose revenue to over-the-top VoWi-Fi providers such as Skype – not just among budget-conscious consumers, but also enterprises that want employees to use the cheapest calling option whenever possible.
- For cable operators, Wi-Fi calling is another way to expand into the mobility market. It eliminates the expense of buying cellular spectrum and building a cellular network.
- Wi-Fi calling also has laid the foundation for “Wi-Fi First” operators such as Google and Republic Wireless.
The increasing popularity of Wi-Fi calling benefits vendors and systems integrators. One obvious example is that a single cable operator needs to buy hundreds of thousands of access points (APs) and other infrastructure in order to offer Wi-Fi calling without relying solely on Wi-Fi aggregators. A less obvious example is when a major facility – such as a campus – needs to upgrade its WLAN to support voice. These upgrades require adding hundreds of APs to enable calling in places where people don’t use Wi-Fi data, such as stairwells and elevators. They also often require replacing existing APs with models capable of providing the QoS that telephony requires.
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