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Orange is good to go on VoLTE, Wi-Fi calling in Europe

Quality is holding up real 4G voice

MWC16 Interview Orange announced plans to offer voice over LTE (VoLTE) and Wi-Fi calling services in Europe this year, adding its name to the still short list of European mobile operators that offer either or both new voice services.

Both VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling are available on Orange in Romania now, and the operator said it will launch the services during this year and early 2017 across the rest of its European footprint - which includes France, Spain, Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Moldova and Slovakia.

But getting to this point hasn’t been easy, according to Yves Bellego, director of technical and network strategy at Orange. In an interview with The Register, Bellego shared some insight into why VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling, or voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi), are so challenging for mobile operators to deliver and what Orange has learned from its own deployments.

The challenges basically boil down to voice quality. Operators don’t want to introduce a new voice service that is not at least as good as what they already provide. Indeed, one would think they should actually be better.

“We have optimized circuit voice for something like 20 years now,” he said. “The quality of voice on mobile networks today is the result of years of optimization. And we need to ensure we keep the level of quality as we move to IP voice. And that’s not easy.”

The tricky part, he explained, is when a customer does not have good 4G coverage and the VoLTE call has to be handed over to the 3G or 2G network. “We had to manage how the device behaves between 4G and 2G/3G,” he said. “It’s the usual thing we have to optimize. Apart from that, when the customer is in good 4G coverage, the quality is good.”

But Orange appears confident about how its networks will handle VoLTE call handovers, as Bellego said it was “not a blocking point for commercial operation.” Indeed, he said that the network was ready in each of Orange’s European markets and that the decisions about when to launch commercial services were now up to the marketing teams in each country.

In Romania, the results so far have been good, he said. He did not provide details on dropped call figures, but said they were similar to what the operator gets on 2G or 3G.

“Now, to move from good to excellent, we have to work with the device manufacturers, and to really understand the handover between 3G and 4G,” he added.

As for the Wi-Fi calling services, Orange has decided to launch without the ability for calls to be handed over to the cellular network when customers move out of WiFi coverage. Technically, the network can do the call handover, according to Bellego, but it’s not clear whether customers really want the capability.

“Technically we can do it, but we would like to do it only if there is a real value,” he said.

The other issue with Wi-Fi calling is the regulatory framework for handling emergency calls. Mobile operators don’t always have precise location information for calls made over Wi-Fi as they do for calls made on cellular networks. So it’s down to each regulator to decide whether VoWiFi emergency calls are allowed and what rules will be applied, explained Bellego.

“This is the difficulty with VoWiFi calls,” he said.

Orange has provided a Wi-Fi-based calling service before, but it is bound to be hoping that this time will be better. The operator offered a service called Unik about 10 years ago that was based on a technology called unlicensed mobile access (UMA). BT in the UK and T-Mobile in the US offered similar services. But these were unsuccessful because the industry didn’t widely back the technology and there were not enough devices that supported it.

Today, there is industry consensus on VoWiFi technology, according to Bellego. So the technology at least has a better starting point than operators’ previous attempts to use Wi-Fi to fill indoor coverage gaps.

The network foundation for both VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling is, of course, IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), which Orange spent the last year deploying across Europe. Bellego said it will be the platform on which Orange can develop other services, like Rich Communications Services (RCS).

He welcomed Google’s commitment to add an RCS messaging client to Android devices, which was announced this week, because it will help to make RCS more widely available.

He admitted RCS “was not right” when operators first tried to offer the services. That was partly due to it not being available on all devices and also because the integration of RCS with voice services on 2G and 3G networks “was not that fantastic.” Also, the first services were “pretty poor in fact.”

“With IMS, now we have the platform on which to build pretty good services,” he said. ®

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