By Camilo Caliz
Director of Communication Services
Ericsson Latin America and Caribbean
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- When people talk about LTE networks, also known as 4G, they are mainly referring to data, specifically high-speed data. And it's not unusual. The service is, after all, an “all-IP” technology, which makes maximum use of the efficient exchange of data packets for high speed downloading of text files, videos and photographs.
Many operators have started to deploy LTE technology as a data-only service. However, when talking about this technology we should be careful not to refer to it solely as the next generation of mobile broadband, but also as the latest generation of voice communication services.
That could come as a surprise to some, because voice services are viewed overall as a business in free-fall, given that they are being replaced by those widely used OTT (Over The Top) applications, such as Viber, WhatsApp and WeChat. These are, ironically, enabled by HSPA, and even more so by the latest generation networks.
The important point is that there is still a large demand for voice in Latin America. Voice and SMS services are used by 81% of the population, which means that demand in this technology “wave” and Voice over LTE (VoLTE) ecosystems are growing rapidly.
A study by Ericsson showed that the number of global voice minutes increased by double-digit percentages in 2012 and 2013. So, while LTE networks are used by operators as a source of income and at the same enable OTT services, they also represents an additional method for operators to compete and/or collaborate with each other, to create and offer new services.
Such collaboration is therefore generating a new ecosystem of communication services with technologies such as VoLTE, combined with others that are emerging, such as Rich Communication Suite (RCS) and Web Real Time Communications (WebRTC).
It should be clear that the construction, distribution and expansion of voice services over next-generation networks are a fundamental part of next-generation mobile networks, and this is not achieved overnight. Currently, there are about 300 LTE networks in operation, with almost double the number of networks today planned to enter into service in 128 countries by 2017. This shows that personal communication currently in use has become more sophisticated in a relatively short time and is constantly evolving.
Pioneers that have made VoLTE a reality
In 2012, South Korea made significant progress testing VoLTE technology. Users in South Korea used voice services through operator LG U+. The United States did the same with MetroPCS.
Until then, LTE commercial networks did not pass voice calls to a 2G or 3G network when outside the network coverage area, but in March 2013 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, engineers at the operator Telefónica Germany demonstrated that the SRVCC (Single Radio Voice Call Continuity) standard allows for transfer from the latest generation network to the 3G network.
The Ericsson-enabled test conducted with this technology at Telefónica Germany also integrated Wi-Fi technology to supplement the mobile network, showing that Wi-Fi has range and offers the latest progress and benefits to the operator, in addition to performing similar to LTE and allowing roaming between different operators and countries.
According to the GSMA, the estimated total LTE connections in Latin America will be 77 million by the end of 2017, which represents 10% of all connections in the region by that date.
A recent study calculates that about 20% of the world’s population is currently within range of 4G network coverage and, considering that operators will continue to expand coverage in the coming years, these networks are expected to be available to half of the world’s population by 2017.
Deploying this technology depends primarily on allocation of the radio spectrum to the latest generation networks. The current expectation is that 465 commercial LTE networks will be in service worldwide by 2017 (according to GSMA).
Today, there are 300 LTE networks operating commercially in 97 countries around the world. Of these, 36 are found in 17 Latin American countries. Brazil (6), Puerto Rico (5), and Colombia (4) are the Latin American countries with the highest number of fourth-generation mobile networks currently in operation.
As a result, it is expected that the number of connections using the latest generation network worldwide will surpass one billion by 2017. By 2017, LTE technology will represent one out of eight in the more than 8 billion forecast mobile connections.
The future of Voice over LTE
Currently, 12 different frequency bands have been deployed in these LTE networks around the world, showing that the global market is constantly evolving.
In markets that have been digital hubs -- such as the United States, South Korea and Japan -- migration to next-generation networks is quite advanced in comparison to markets in developing countries, where subscriber commitment has not grown as much.
Some of the factors that promote and drive the growth of LTE and VoLTE will remain, including suitable spectrum for mobile operators, availability of affordable LTE devices, and implementation of innovative rates.
Based on these facts, from 2015 on the rapid development of VoLTE is unavoidable, given that almost all necessary elements already exist to prove that this technology is about to revolutionize the way mobile communication is enabled, with a pattern of development that is considered the fastest in history.
Caribbean cellular providers under fire for blocking free call apps