Voice-over-LTE standards relevant for basic wireless calling services

Standards for transporting data over Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology haven't rankled carriers, but defining a voice-over-LTE standard has been increasingly vital and problematic.

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Wireless carriers developing their next-generation networks using Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology don't seem deterred that the technology is outpacing LTE standards -- probably because data over Internet Protocol (IP) packet switching isn't a major upset at this point.

The fact that you've got the big hitters … behind One Voice is probably a major clue as to where things will go.
Steven Hartley
Principal AnalystOvum
But defining a voice-over-LTE standard has been increasingly vital and problematic for carriers.

"It's far more critical now than it probably ever was [to use standards for voice] because far more people have a higher expectation of what mobiles do and what they expect mobiles to do. That makes it a bigger issue than maybe it would've been 15 years ago," said Steven Hartley, a principal analyst at Ovum. "You can roam with voice internationally and connect with people on other networks -- all of those things have to happen."

Six wireless operators and six vendors from across the globe recently gave their blessing to IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) as the LTE standard for voice and Short Message Service (SMS) to the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the telecom association that will ratify LTE standards. Carriers on the list included AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Orange, Telefonica, TeliaSonera and Vodafone.

If approved by 3GPP, the "One Voice Initiative" agreement would make IMS the standard for network vendors, service providers and handset manufacturers to offer compatible LTE voice solutions. It would change transport of voice and SMS, which have traditionally been sent over circuit connections, to a costly IP-based system, Hartley said.

Competition for the LTE voice standard comes from Voice over LTE via Generic Access (VoLGA), a standard pushed most visibly by T-Mobile, and circuit-switched fallback solutions.

"The fact that you've got the big hitters … behind One Voice is probably a major clue as to where things will go," Hartley said.

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Even advocates of LTE standards-based solutions said they were surprised at the breadth of One Voice support. Getting major carriers and manufacturers to agree on standards is usually a long and painful process, according to Brian Wood, vice president of marketing at Continuous Computing, a San Diego-based component manufacturer for network equipment providers.

"It's kind of like working out a piece of legislation in Congress. There's a lot of horse trading, and usually that means things take a long time and you end with something in which nobody is delighted and everybody feels they didn't quite get everything they wanted," Wood said. "Here, the surprising thing is that so many have come together so quickly to decide on one thing, and it really clears the path."

Change in 'ecosystem' will shape LTE standards

Interoperability and roaming will be two key factors for driving the LTE standard for voice, even if the apparent leader, IMS, was once considered "overly complex," said Akshay Sharma, a research director at Gartner Inc.

"Sure, standards don't make a whole lot of sense -- unless you're trying to create a whole ecosystem of partners and value-added applications down the road," Sharma quipped.

But not all industry experts agree. The effort to "create and solidify ecosystems versus interfaces" has complicated 4G build-outs but has not necessarily made standards any more relevant, according to consultant Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp.

"The role that standards used to play is being played by other things, like the procurement zones the service providers are providing, the professional services contracts and things like that," Nolle said. "The net effect of this is that standards are now becoming less important in some areas while still important in others."

Although the LTE standard for radio handset-to-base station communication will be "critical," other parts of the voice-over-LTE standards-setting process have become "highly political," Nolle said. The push for IMS comes from vendors that have already invested heavily in IMS, he said.

Meanwhile, some operators are quietly questioning whether to do voice over LTE at all -- given its low profit margins -- instead of allowing peer-to-peer applications such as Skype and Google Voice to handle voice over the Internet, Nolle said.

"There is a tension between the benefit of standards and the price of standards, in terms of lost opportunity," he said. "What I'm seeing over the last year is that tension is beginning to tip the balance in favor of opportunity, so operators are becoming much less standards-oriented."

Continued: Top wireless carriers favor IMS standard for LTE voice

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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