At the Consumer Electronics Show, AT&T made a splash at its annual Developer Summit to announce the ASUS Padfone X, a device that the carrier says will come out of the box with voice over LTE, or VoLTE, support out of the box. Rival Verizon Wireless had been talking about VoLTE making a strong debut in 2014, but that carrier has not shown off any new hardware at the Consumer Electronics Show. With all the hype about VoLTE, is it worth it? More importantly, should consumers who are interested in a new smartphone today wait for VoLTE or should they choose to upgrade immediately? We’ll break down some of those questions and provide some useful answers.
What is VoLTE
Voice over LTE is just another term for delivering voice calls over the Internet. Rather than using dedicated voice technologies today, like GSM or CDMA, to route calls, calls will be routed in a similar way to VoIP calls through services like Skype. However, the main difference is that instead of delivering calls over the standard Internet protocol, VoLTE calls are delivered over a mobile 4G LTE broadband network.
What do I need to take advantage of VoLTE?
In order to reap the benefits of VoLTE, two things must happen. First, consumers will need a compatible VoLTE smartphone that supports this protocol. Additionally, the carrier will also need to support this on the network side. AT&T says that the Padfone X will be available initially, so customers who buy this next-generation smartphone will theoretically be future-proof for a while. However, VoLTE may not be available in all areas, and to fully enjoy the benefits of VoLTE, customers will have to wait for AT&T, Verizon, and others to upgrade their equipment.
What are the benefits of VoLTE, and does this technology matter for me?
There are three initial main benefits to VoLTE. The biggest benefit is that VoLTE will support higher quality calls and will connect calls much faster than a traditional GSM or CDMA call.
As calls are delivered over LTE networks, the latency for connection will be lower so calls can connect in about a second or two, versus the three or more seconds it may take to connect current calls over a mobile network. Additionally, carriers are promoting a major benefit as HD voice, which will allow better audio fidelity to be delivered, resulting in richer, warmer voices when connecting through LTE. No more crackling or static.
A second benefit could be improved battery life. On CDMA networks like Verizon’s and Sprint’s in the U.S., Android phones that support simultaneous voice and data currently have to operate two radios. When you take a phone call, the CDMA radio is fired up to connect your voice call. And when you’re talking to your friend while trying to research a cool restaurant to go to for the evening on Yelp and juggling making reservations on OpenTable, the LTE radio is also fired up. On initial LTE handsets, like the HTC Thunderbolt, this resulted in diminished battery life. Though phones have improved, battery drain is a big concern with simultaneous voice and data. GSM networks, on the other hand, juggle simultaneous voice and data over HSPA or HSPA+ connections, so users who need to talk and surf don’t really reap the benefits of the faster 4G LTE network right now.
A third benefit is that complicated billing will be a thing of the past. As the VoLTE transition is completed, carrier networks will get rid of aging legacy technology, which means that networks will be data-only. The future would pave the way for plans that don’t require text or voice minutes as everything will be handled over data.
What are some of the downsides of VoLTE?
While the benefits are there for VoLTE, buyers should be careful of what they wish for. HD voice, faster phone connections with lower latency, and better battery life are all great, but the biggest downside with VoLTE is that it could potentially mean more expensive calling plans.
As voice and traditional Internet surfing and video streaming are all lumped into the same data plan bucket, consumers who talk a lot will likely consume more data and will need bigger data buckets. With today’s Mobile Share plans and Share Everything plans, customers need to calculate data for all the services they use minus voice calls. However, in the future, voice calls will also use data. It’s unclear what the fate of unlimited data will be on Sprint and T-Mobile when this does happen and if Verizon and AT&T will force the grandfathered unlimited data users to switch to more expensive metered data plans.
It will likely take a few years for this transition to happen, however, but when it does customers will be forced to upgrade their devices as older GSM or CDMA technologies will be phased out. Once this happens, the spectrum once reserved for these legacy networks will be re-purposed for LTE so we will see more spectrum leading to less congestion.