Wi-Fi Calling for Change

Posted on April 13, 2015

This post originally appeared in the ‘Opinion’ section on www.telecoms.com, on April 9th, 2015

Wi-Fi calling announcements are turning a lot of heads right now. Since T-Mobile USA and Apple whipped up a storm in September last year, the launch of Wi-Fi calling has become a priority across the industry. The level of attention drawn by EE’s release in the UK this week suggests discussions around Wi-Fi calling will remain prominent in the industry for some time to come.

The ability to make voice calls over Wi-Fi networks is nothing new, so some of the debate stimulated by EE’s launch reflected disagreement over the extent to which it qualified as the ‘first’ that EE claimed. But the details of this dispute obscure the wider importance of not just EE’s launch, but also those that preceded it and the many more that will no doubt follow.

By giving customers these capabilities mobile operators are showing they understand that a truly comprehensive wireless connectivity service can only be created through the integration of cellular and Wi-Fi access. They are showing they understand that demand for connectivity does not cease at the edge of any one network.

That’s a big deal for a community that (for obvious reasons) has traditionally positioned cellular as all the user needs. It reflects a rapid shift in perspective: Less than a year ago EE was essentially pitting cellular and Wi-Fi against one another, announcing that its customers were cutting their usage of public Wi-Fi and home broadband dramatically as a direct result of the introduction of 4G.

In this week’s announcement the firm highlighted the situation of four million UK consumers for whom cellular coverage does not deliver in the home. CEO Olaf Swantee described this as “a major frustration” — and he’s addressing it with Wi-Fi.

This is a very important statement for a mobile operator CEO to be making. It shows he’s not afraid to admit what every end user already knows: There are limitations to the cellular network. To his credit, Swantee has focused on solving the problem. The creation of services such as the one EE announced this week — which offer a truly integrated experience designed to exploit whatever bearer is most appropriate to the customer’s immediate circumstances — is clearly the way forward.

Mobile operators must now ensure this integration spreads and takes root. Cellular networks struggle to provide optimum performance in all sorts of indoor locations, not just homes. And it’s often harder to get a good quality 4G data connection than it is to make a voice call. So operators need to apply this bearer-neutral thinking to the entire connectivity experience. Whether the end user needs to make a voice call, send a text, or access data services, operators need to ensure they can deliver connectivity to that user, wherever they are.

Wi-Fi calling in the home is an ideal use case to promote because many people will have already set up their devices to connect to home Wi-Fi automatically. But what happens when the user is beyond the cellular network in a public indoor space? That integrated Wi-Fi calling service is no use if the smartphone isn’t connected and, left to their own devices (so to speak) many users might not even realise they’ve lost connectivity. Numerous public indoor spaces offer free Wi-Fi connections but manual access processes are often complex and off-putting. In any case, our research shows that 53% of smartphone users keep Wi-Fi switched off in public.

All the effort that goes into developing sophisticated Wi-Fi calling services is at risk of being wasted if operators don’t extend the same integrated thinking to the underlying connectivity as they have clearly done to the service layer. Wi-Fi connectivity needs to be made automatic, freeing the user from the need to intervene, just like the cellular experience. And that automated connectivity needs to be enabled wherever cellular coverage is not equal to whatever task the user wants to perform.

LTE has created demand for ubiquitous, high quality wireless data, and mobile operators need to meet that demand with whatever tools they have at their disposal. This is the logical extension of the thinking behind the Wi-Fi calling services that are coming to market and it is the service model that today’s smartphone user requires. To do any less is to leave the job half done, and the door open for any disruptive competitors that might come calling to tempt customers away.

 The original article can be viewed at: http://telecoms.com/opinion/wi-fi-calling-for-change/