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EE in giant VoLTE-face as it tries voice calls over Wi-Fi... again

It'll be charged as voice calls and not data usage, promises operator

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It may be third time lucky for EE with an attempt to route voice calls over Wi-Fi, as the company has announced it is working on another service which reduces the often prohibitive cost of rolling out coverage to places with few people and difficult terrain.

The new service will allow customers to use an unmodified handset with existing Wi-Fi connections to make calls and texts when there is no cellular coverage available.

EE has a service called Signal Boost which is a femtocell, a small mobile phone base station which provides cellular coverage and connects on customers’ Wi-Fi to get the call back to EE. There also used to be a service called Orange Unique, launched in 2006 . This used special handsets which worked with the UMA service to route calls over domestic Wi-Fi.

Orange bullied handset manufacturers into producing suitable devices by threatening not to buy other non-UMA handsets if the company did not also make UMA compliant ones. Unfortunately the results were the Motorola A910, Nokia 6136 and the Samsung P200 – which were unloved by the manufacturers and consumers alike.

BT had a similar service called BT Fusion, which used both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and offered a modified version of the outrageously popular Motorola Razr, but even that failed to get traction, with many of the customers buying it for the loss-leader pricing and never using the hand-off between cellular and Wi-Fi.

The new service aims to be different in that it uses the IMS (IP Multimedia System) which uses SIP and which is built into an increasing number of newer handsets and doesn’t require specialised end-user equipment, so will work over any open Wi-Fi connection. A few devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, already support IMS and more are expected.

Unlike using Viber or Skype on your handset over Wi-Fi, you will pay for the calls as they come out of bundled minutes, although EE points out that on many tariffs these are unlimited. EE also claims the service will be more reliable than using an “unmanaged VoIP” service (by which it means Skype), because the call will be prioritised. Voice always takes priority over data, which is a “best efforts” service. Calls are also encrypted using robust mobile protocols.

There is, however, no support for roaming. You won’t be able to use the service to make Wi-Fi based calls when overseas to save on roaming costs – although, of course, you could hide your location with a VPN. EE explains that this is because of 112/999 emergency services considerations.

The Wi-Fi calling service is set to launch in autumn 2014 on the latest handsets capable of supporting the service.

Fotis Karonis, CTO at EE, said:

Our WiFi calling capability will let customers make calls where they have access to WiFi but not to the mobile network. The customer experience is seamless because it’s the same as making a network call and uses the normal call interface of the handset. This is a major part of our strategy to invest in giving customers the ability to make a call wherever they are, and we’re confident that this service can make a big difference to people in homes and large offices across the country, especially in the most rural areas, that don’t have mobile coverage.

One of the major locations where there is Wi-Fi coverage, but no mobile service, is the stations of the London Underground. Quite how fellow commuters will react to sitting next to someone who is bellowing “I’m on the train” in the network's confined tunnels remains to be seen.

That VoLTE-face in full

EE has also announced that it has started tinkering with 4G Voice (VoLTE) in its labs and will begin a trial later in 2014 using the 800MHz spectrum acquired in last year’s auction. This will be across parts of Oxfordshire and encompass areas which have previously not been covered by the 1800MHz spectrum the telco has.

The work is being done with equipment from Huawei and Mavenir which is providing the IMS tech.

EE says that a commercial launch will follow in 2015, when its 4G network exceeds 90 per cent population coverage. The network says that level of penetration is essential to a viable 4G voice service.

Karonis adds: “4G calling, or VoLTE, is an exciting technology that we’re going to be trialling in the coming months using our low frequency spectrum, bringing one of the world’s best voice and data services to a part of rural Britain that has previously been unconnected. When we have rigorously tested the performance of 4G calling and made sure that it matches our 2G and 3G quality, we’ll launch it nationwide on our 4G network.”

One of the problems all 4G operators are wrestling with is how to fall back from 4G to 3G and 2G when a customer moves from an area which does not have 4G coverage. The move from an IP to Circuit Switched connection currently takes between one and two seconds, which is not acceptable in the middle of a phone call. EE is working to make the transition seamless – as it is from 3G to 2G.

The solution adopted by SKT in Korea, which has had VoLTE for some while, is to roll out 4G to a level where customers don’t need to fall back. EE might, however, find it too difficult to cover some exotic places like “rural Oxfordshire” so fall back will be necessary in Blighty – for now. ®

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