With the entire telecom world (myself included) seemingly enamored of 4G wireless Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology, the stage has been set to take a classic analyst position. Call it realism. Call it cynicism. Call it hype backlash. Regardless, the argument goes something like this:
Based on the experience of 3G, LTE is going to be a massive let-down plagued by deployment delays, a lack of compelling devices and disappointing service performance.
Since no technology is mature at inception, it's hard to find fault with the claim. I find it even harder to pull any meaningful insights or market recommendations from the claims. Yet while I'm not a fan of the LTE argument, President Obama's recent so-called "Beer Summit" made me wonder whether or not it presents a "teachable moment." For Voice over LTE, I think it does.
If you haven't been following the Voice over LTE debates (and who could blame you?), the issue is fairly straightforward. Since LTE is a data-only technology, operators will need to pick a strategy (a.k.a. technology) to deliver voice over LTE -- if only because voice will likely drive mobile operator revenues for years to come. While there's no shortage of strategies, some seem better suited for the long-term (IMS, for example), while others appear more like stop-gap solutions (session fallback to 2G or 3G services) or narrow solutions with only limited operator support (the UMA-based VoLGA initiative). But back to the original argument.
Take the first point of the argument: LTE will be delayed
Does anyone doubt this? Does anyone really expect that we'll be unwrapping LTE-based iPhones or Android handsets come Christmas 2010? I don't. This means that treating Voice over LTE like a woman in labor (something that needs immediate attention) just isn't necessary.
Yes, if LTE has any hope of being the dominant mobile technology in the long term, it will need a standard voice strategy. The long term for LTE, however, is many, many years away, which explains why few operators have made LTE voice services a priority and why solutions such as vendor-specific SIP implementations or 2G/3G fallback (aka CS Fallback) should suffice, especially given new vocoder speech analysis/synthesis systems efficiencies and 2G/3G voice innovations.
The second point of the argument is implied rather than stated: Near-term delays don't justify ignoring the inevitable. Had we all followed the "3G will be a disappointment" naysayers years ago, we'd still be waiting for the iPhone.
The same holds true for LTE and Voice over LTE. We cannot ignore the need for Voice over LTE solutions. Here, however, it's clear that vendors haven't ignored the problem. In part, they've been lucky, with VoIP over 3G investigations (including all the work surrounding EV-DO rev. A) providing important insights. In part, the road was paved for Voice over LTE with the development of IMS. To be sure, "insights" aren't solutions, and few operators are ready to trust bread-and-butter voice services to IMS.
Likewise, some operators may see LTE services as crippled without SMS support from Day 1. Luckily, CS fallback can solve the SMS problem -- it is, essentially, an issue for the core network, not the air interface -- and there's plenty of time to get the real voice problems ironed out.
About the author:
Peter Jarich is a research director for telecom infrastructure at market research firm Current Analysis, Inc. He is responsible for managing the wireless infrastructure practice, as well as the company's practices covering fixed-line infrastructure, carrier transport, application platforms and telecom vendor services.
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