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Monday, February 08, 2016

No, VoLTE is not the future of mobile voice

I've lost count of the articles and presentations I've seen recently, loudly proclaiming that VoLTE represents "The Future of Mobile Voice", or worse, "Allows telcos to compete against [so-called] OTTs". The run-up to MWC is likely to generate even more breathless and gushing tributes of this type.

But this is all nonsense. VoLTE is most definitely NOT the future of mobile voice. It's just the past of mobile telephony, with a lick of very expensive IP paint.

(It goes without saying that VoWiFi, RCS & ViLTE aren't the future of mobile comms either. See here for a full explanation, and watch out for another post soon).

VoLTE is still just "boring old phone calls", billed per minute, with interruptive caller-to-recipient ringing, based on E.164 numbers, with no customisation for purpose or context or sense-making. HD audio and embedding calls in apps via APIs aren't new either - they work for circuit calls too. Not only that, but VoLTE doesn't work very well - Amdocs recently providing evidence that calls drop far more frequently now. 

It's also hugely expensive and complex to implement, and in most cases different VoLTE networks don't interoperate, as they're all slightly different. The GSMA has even given a special acronym to its bug-fixing squad - now called VIRTUE (VoLTE Interoperability Resolution Expediting Task Force) - link here.

There are only two real purposes for VoLTE: supporting calls on 4G-only networks, and hopefully reclaiming some 2G/3G spectrum. Worthy, but not "the future". VoLTE will not increase telephony usage. Yes, faster call setup, better indoor coverage (4G or WiFi) and clearer HD might slow the decline a little, but neither are exactly groundbreaking. Fixed PSTN call setup has been instantaneous since the 1980s, and HD-quality voice has been available on both 3G networks and 3rd-party VoIP apps for years. VoLTE is arriving very late to the party, with a bottle of cheap supermarket lager, just as the cool people are heading somewhere else for champagne and whisky.

Peak Mobile Telephony

This is because telephony is yesterday's news, even mobile telephony. Looking around the world, many countries are past the point of "peak telephony", when adding together volumes of fixed+mobile outbound calls. Quite a few are now past "peak mobile telephony" as well, although others are still substituting fixed for mobile, as prices fall because of competition. 

Even those with growing overall call usage are seeing this driven by increasing numbers of users not usage per person, for example in India, where few people had phones at all in the past. Sometimes there's a blip of pent-up demand when flat-rate plans come into the market, or there's a recovery from an economic crash, but that's a one-off gain, not sustained growth.

But the simple fact of the matter is that once people have access to phones & (cheap) calls, there's a limit to how much they want to use. Use-cases are eroded by email, messaging, video communications, social networks, app-based interactions, notifications and the 100 other ways of connecting people and computers - even before WebRTC's help in accelerating the trend. 

There are, simply, better ways of doing almost anything than via a normal phone call.

This is already exhibited by usage trends, before we've even started the main part of this transition period. For example:
  • The CTIA's annual survey reported a drop of 6.2% in US mobile voice-call minutes from 2013 to 2014, despite a broad shift to flat-rate plans and a 6% increase in the number of subscriptions. A similar fall in 2015 seems plausible.
  • China Mobile did the same number of voice-calling minutes (1.60trn) in Q3'2015 as it did in Q3'2012, despite growing its customer base from 699m to 823m over the same period. That's a 15% decline in average use in three years. (Link)
  • In the UK, EE has recently reported average minutes-of-use falling 4.4% year-on-year on average - and 8.6% for postpaid users.
  • France bucks the trend - it has seen mobile telephony usage rise consistently, although that's perhaps because more competition from Free (and lower prices) has driven elasticity in usage. The chart on p32 here indicates that growth is flatter, though
In business telephony & UCaaS, there are mixed reports of growth by company, vertical and user role. But if you take out pre-arranged dial-ins to conference bridges (not really a "call" as such), the picture isn't pretty either.

In short, mobile telephony is (or has) peaked. I use fewer minutes per month on my phone than last year, and I bet you do as well. Upgrading to VoLTE won't change that, especially if it's less reliable.

When was the last time you phoned for a taxi, or called someone to invite them to a birthday party? Unless you work in telesales, how often do you use your phone - desk or mobile - to call a client or industry contact? How often do you scowl or tut, when your phone rings unexpectedly and distracts your concentration?

Phone calls won't disappear, no. But then there's plenty of fax machines still around, too.

More importantly still, if demand is falling or flat, while supply of telephony or near-substitutes is rising, the only economic outcome is falling prices. The revenue attributable to voice telephony is falling, even if volumes are holding up.

The painful fact is that telcos don't do "voice" in a general sense. They only do telephony, with an occasional side-order of voicemail, conferencing and push-to-talk. They are almost entirely absent from the 100s (soon to be 1000s) of other voice applications and use-cases. 

VoLTE is misnamed. It's just ToLTE. 

What else is there in voice besides phone calls? 

How about voice chat, asynchronous voice, speech-to-text, recording, real-time translation, priority voice, voice recognition, voice biometrics, voice messaging, stereo audio, aid for the blind, peer-to-peer, realtime captioning, voice PaaS, emergency group voice, gunshot detection, nurse-call functions, radio, virtual assistants, emotional analysis, karaoke, encrypted voice, hypervoice, IoT integration - and so on. 

Those are not phone calls, not billed (or measured) per-minute, not necessarily using phone numbers, often not subject to lawful interception, not regulated - but they are huge sources of current and potential value. But they need thought and innovation, not blind standards.

Then add in the whole rapidly-inflating universe of contextual communications and analytic/metadata-enriched voice, and you start to get the full picture. I'll cover intersections with machine-learning and IoT another time. Telephony is Alexander Graham Bell's view of voice communications, not the 21st century's. (Obviously, regulators and governments are even slower than telcos to work this out, though). 

(A couple of telcos have tried updating VoLTE to pre-announce why people are calling. Good idea, badly implemented. A topic for another post. Hint: blame RCS).

The voice-based service that's currently got the most buzz? No, not Skype or Viber or Whatsapp or any of the UC vendors. It's Amazon Echo and its Alexa virtual assistant. Echo has been around for a while, but in the last month or two everyone seems to have suddenly started creating integrations and cool services. "Alexa, get me an Uber", "Alexa, play Lady Gaga's Telephone on Spotify". Or, ironically, "Alexa, send my calls to voicemail", by innovative VoIP provider Ooma (link).

Add that to Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Google Now, plus assorted other virtual assistants that are becoming the true face of future mobile (or fixed) voice communications. It will be (in part) about input/output and access to information. Not upgrading the string between two tin-cans to IP.

There's an upcoming conference on Mobile Voice in a couple of months. There are no mobile operators or even VoLTE vendors on the draft speaking roster. Ironically, the only CSP represented is cable operator Comcast. Forget the upcoming dinosaur exhibition in Barcelona - this is where the new mobile voice DNA is being developed. 

The obsession with VoLTE is just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Or creating an IP-powered horse buggy in the age of the car. Create your own analogy - there's plenty of examples of "missing the wood for the trees".

VoLTE is retro

In fact, perhaps the best analogy for VoLTE is the new-shape VW Beetle introduced in 1997, which took a lot of styling clues from the classic car made from 1938 onwards, updated for the modern era. It perpetuated a decades-old model, but with an underlying change in platform. It evolved from rear-engine/RWD, to front-engine/FWD - the equivalent of moving from TDM to IP in terms of phone calls. It still had 4 wheels, it was still internal-combustion, it was still sold via normal dealerships and distribution, and was financed in the usal ways. However, it was more complex and expensive than its predecessor.

While the New Beetle clearly fitted a market demand, and has been moderately successful, in hindsight it was not a game-changer in any way. It didn't represent the "future of cars". It hasn't been a blockbuster, let alone the "people's wagon". It was an up-to-date retro take on an old classic. The original Beetle sold about 21m units in 54 years. The New Beetle sold just 1m in its first 10 years to to 2008, and (with another refresh in 2012) it will probably do about the same in the next 10 years. People think it's quite cute, but it holds nowhere near the universal appeal of the original.

(I'd perhaps contrast the Beetle with the new Mini, which has spawned lots of different variants and now seems almost as iconic as the original 1950s Issigonis classic. Or perhaps another car analogy VoLTE should have emulated is the Porsche 911, which has continued to evolve incrementally for decades - it keeps the family resemblance, but is always fresh. And I'm not even going to invoke Tesla, Toyota Priuses, Google self-drive cars, car-club business models and other innovations).


VoLTE is the right answer, 7 years too late. It should have been part of LTE at launch on Day 1, designed-in and standardised during Year Minus-3. The industry forgot about it, and has been in panicky catch-up mode ever since, trying to shoehorn immature packet voice onto a complex new air-interface and core network. The focus has been on network QoS, standards and spectrum re-farming, rather than communications purpose, user-experience, analytics, devices or applications. The word "acoustic" didn't even appear in the original IR92 specifications.

It's too little, too late. It's a IP-homage to ye olde phone networkes of yore, not a shiny vision of the future of communications. Yes, we'll likely see continued growth in VoLTE deployments, with vendors making some money, while telco engineering departments look "busy" and justify their existence and budgets. 

Instead of putting R&D efforts in, hiring people who understand speech and behaviour, educating regulators, experimenting with new capabilities and models, or learning from other innovators, we get a group of people titled "head of voice" who mostly seem confused by the lack of Bakelite and rotary dials. And vendors happy to entrench the confirmation bias.

Try an experiment over the next month, especially at MWC: Mentally replace the word "voice" with "telephony" wherever you see or hear it. (Or replace VoLTE with ToLTE). It could be in press releases, CEO speeches, booth demos, business-card job titles, analyst research reports, Tweets or whatever. 

If voice/telephony makes no difference to the sentence's meaning, then that person or company simply doesn't get it. They're not the future of mobile voice - they're the past. They're telco equivalents of VW marketeers, with equally dodgy stats and polluting emissions.


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Thierry Van de Velde said...

The reason why VoLTE was't launched with LTE in 2010 is political/financial : the MNOs had just been convinced by Ericsson & Co (in Barcelona over bad tapas?) to replace their MSCs with MSC controllers and Media Gateways... 3GPP R4... Control Plane - User Plane separation... rings a bell anno 2016? SDN? NFV? MWC16 is going to be full of that : take a router and split it up. In the meanwhile these simplistic stories are dragging energy and attention away from the real innovations : in my opinion VR, AR and yes, it will be nice to have some audio in these headsets. But a 5G radio? Can't we first realize 5ms round-trip in 4G and see where this gets us?