Why deploying VoWiFi can provide operators with a commercial advantage

Many operators are not yet ready to provide voice over LTE, but they can implement voice over Wi-Fi right now using Taqua technology and then migrate to VoLTE when they are ready, as Keith Mumford, VP Technology at Taqua explains to James Atkinson

Why deploying VoWiFi can provide operators with a commercial advantage

You could argue that US firm Taqua has now come into its own given the fact that more and more mobile network operators are now providing their subscribers with voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi) services.

Taqua, along with Kineto – the company it acquired in August 2014 - have been at the forefront of developing VoWiFi technology for a number of years now. With some exaggeration, the two firms might be described as lone voices in the wilderness when it came to trying to persuade operators of the benefits of VoWiFi up until recently.

However, Wi-Fi itself has made great advances in terms of developing carrier grade standards and firms like Taqua have been instrumental in overcoming some of the major technical issues associated with VoWiFi (such as reducing the call set-up latency time). Mobile operators are now embracing Wi-Fi for a number of reasons, so Taqua is well placed to take advantage of Wi-Fi’s new-found acceptance.

Speaking to Wireless at the LTE Voice event in London in September, Keith Mumford, VP Technology at Taqua (pictured), explains that the company has two main strings to its bow. ‘First, we have an Android client product designed to deliver very transparent voice and messaging over Wi-Fi for operators. It doesn’t matter if they have a VoLTE network from Ericsson, Mavenir or whoever – our client will work alongside that as it uses standards-based interfaces.’

Mumford reports that Taqua has made quite some progress in working with VoLTE core manufacturers who have put these VoLTE systems into networks. But operators haven’t got much to run off them because there are not that many VoLTE enabled devices out there yet. However, they can still find a use for that VoLTE core.

‘Any operator will have an installed or embedded base of Android devices on its network,’ points out Mumford, ‘so you can quickly get all those guys energised by offering them a VoWiFi solution, which is connected to that core network.

‘Any device with Android 4 operating system or later (and 96% of devices out there are now Android 4 or above) will work. So, if you are an operator with 10 million Android devices on your network, you can quickly upgrade them to VoWiFi using our Android client. This is a real opportunity for carriers who have implemented a VoLTE core, but aren’t using it much yet,’ explains Mumford.

Exploiting the installed Android base
‘If you take some of the large carriers in Asia which might put in a VoLTE core, they have a large Android installed base, but there isn’t much they can do with it until people decide to upgrade to a VoLTE enabled smartphone – and that tends not to be every 12-18 months in those markets. So, how do you bring them onto your 4G network? You entice them by enabling VoWiFi and that also helps differentiate you as an operator in your market.’

Mumford says the firm still uses the old Kineto pitch: if you take a smartphone, the only apps that don’t work over Wi-Fi are the operator’s voice and messaging applications. ‘But if you install our VoWiFi solution then you get voice and messaging too, so a subscriber can now use all the operator’s services over Wi-Fi. We see our offering as more of a partnership with those operators who have put in a VoLTE core.’

But what if the operator does not have a VoLTE core? ‘Not all operators are ready to install a VoLTE core yet by any means,’ agrees Mumford. ‘Some don’t have LTE, as there are still places where no LTE licenses have been issued. Others may have no IMS (IP multimedia subsystem), or if they do, they may have no plans to implement VoLTE yet.’

IMS is a standards-based infrastructure for deploying applications on top of the network, such as rich communication services (RCS) or voice. An operator does not need to install IMS to provide its subscribers with 4G data services, but it does need to do so if it wants to offer value added services.

But even if they do want to do so, IMS takes quite a while to deploy, although it has got easier from the point of view of experience and IMS-in-a-box products, says Mumford. And this is where Taqua’s second main offering comes in – a core solution that enables VoWiFi and VoLTE services, as and when the operator decides it is ready to offer them.

The Taqua core solution
‘What we offer is a way to come in with our core solution today for all those operators that are either non-VoLTE or non-IMS. By installing our core it allows them to use their existing network to do VoWiFi and not just with our client, but all the native VoWiFi clients that are out there, be it Apple, Samsung or whoever. And then when they are ready we can upgrade them to full VoLTE using our same platform,’ explains Mumford.

Taqua argues that its core provides operators who are not quite ready to do VoLTE to be able to offer VoWiFi instead and differentiate themselves a bit in the market. However, Mumford clarifies that Taqua is not in the game of trying to just sell its VoLTE services core as its main objective.

‘That’s a more difficult pitch for us,’ says Mumford, ‘as we’d be up against the big OEMs like Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei. Our differentiation is that for all the operators that are not ready for 4G or VoLTE yet, we can start introducing them to 4G technology with or without IMS and help them migrate to full VoLTE when they are ready.’

He notes that this story plays very well in some regions, especially in Asia where there are large, very complicated mobile networks, which are very difficult to swap out for a 4G VoLTE environment, but where they are ready to do VoWiFi.

‘We have Apple to thank for that after it supported VoWiFi a year ago. When Apple’s user community sees the application and wants to use that feature, they start demanding it from their operator. But that is hard demand for the operator to meet if it is nowhere near deploying VoLTE; but we can help them out by providing VoWiFi now.

Monetising VoWiFi
Mumford explains that operators can also monetise the VoWiFi service too it they so desire. One operator Taqua works with has an offering it has been testing with them.

Its pitch to subscribers is: if you want to use VoWiFi, download this client; send an SMS to this number saying turn on VoWiFi and the operator will start billing them from that point whether they are in or out of country. When the subscriber is finished using the VoWiFi service, they send another SMS and the operator will turn it off.

‘It is not a huge amount of money, but if you have millions of subscribers, you’d hope many of them would use it and that would bring in good revenue – especially where ARPUs are quite small – it’s a pay-as-you-go VoWiFi service,’ says Mumford.

He points out that it would be very hard for an AT&T or an EE to charge extra for VoWiFi coverage because of the market expectations, but in other regions that view is not so widely held and there are problems with coverage.

These are regions with large dispersed populations that operators cannot easily service with blanket cellular coverage, but if the operator can provide VoWiFi and monetise it a little, then not only is it providing a better service, it gets another revenue stream.

‘I think there are a lot of different models emerging,’ observes Mumford. ‘At one end there is the flat model, which is just to offer voice, and Wi-Fi is merely another way to get voice, so the operator won’t charge you any more for it. At the other end, there are actual, real benefits to be had from providing VoWiFi for which people will pay, as they are getting access to services they couldn’t have got before.’

Open standards
He points out that part of the attraction of Taqua’s offering is that does not just work with its client; it works just as well with Apple or Samsung’s own native VoWiFI client. ‘We are not restricting anyone to using our client,’ he emphasises. ‘Our client can be used on phones that can never be upgraded to do native voice over Wi-Fi calling. If anything, our client is a two, three or four year stop-gap until all those phones are churned out of the market.’

These are the two sides of Taqua business therefore: a client package working alongside other networks; and the core package plus the client for a total solution for an operator, which can be simply deployed off their existing networks.

To return to the theme of this being Taqua’s time as it were, Mumford notes that what is happening is that the rest of the market is trying to catch up with Taqua. ‘Kineto had been doing VoWiFi for 10 years. The business model was always indoor coverage as the number one objective. But it was not until femtocells came along that operators were able to admit there was an indoor coverage problem, as they now had a solution.

‘Now that has moved onto VoWiFi. That will never go away even with LTE. I’ve just heard a presentation from Huawei in the LTE Voice conference, where it was saying that the cellular coverage issues in Hong Kong were a good reason to deploy VoWiFi,’ says Mumford.

VoWiFi for roaming
The second biggest application of VoWiFi is the ability to use it while the user is travelling, as it provides the ability to make calls as if the user is on the home network and therefore bypass roaming charges.

‘For some operators that plays well,’ observes Mumford, ‘especially where regulators are phasing out roaming charges anyway. For other operators it is not such an attractive proposition as they rely on in- and out-bound roaming for revenue.

‘But even with some of those latter operators we are working with them to figure out a way so that if you are using VoWiFi internationally, they will let you onto the network. They will charge you more than your home network would, but a lot less than normal international roaming charges.

‘So, they are trying to mitigate the cannibalisation of voice and data revenues, while still providing an attractive service. It is a way of fighting back against people using third party apps like Skype to avoid roaming charges, but unlike an app you do not have to use a different dialler,’ he points out.

‘You just use your normal dial-up on the phone if you use our VoWiFi offering. All you see is a little icon at the top showing VoWiFi and you know you will be charged a bit, but at a lower rate than normal roaming by some operators,’ says Mumford.

In Mumford’s view the need for residential cellular femtocells is being obviated by the advent of good quality VoWiFi, although he says the deployment of cellular small cells still makes sense in the enterprise space.

‘Our research shows 90% of calls over Wi-Fi are from the home or office where you tend to get a better Wi-Fi experience anyway. It is a more patchy experience in public hotspots,’ he notes.

Wi-Fi to 2G and3G hand off
Mumford says the other interesting service Taqua delivers, which no one else really does, is handing off to the cellular network from Wi-Fi. ‘It is relatively easy when you have a VoLTE environment deployed to move from Wi-Fi to VoLTE. But if you do not have a VoLTE core and you still want to do handover then it gets more difficult. For example, if you are on a call and you leave the house, but the network does not have a VoLTE core, then the call drops.’

To overcome this problem Taqua has implemented on its platform the ability to handover to 2G and 3G networks, a fairly unique capability, according to Mumford. ‘It is a good option as it means operators do not need VoLTE to provide Wi-Fi to cellular hand off to 2G and 3G where most carriers will have better coverage anyway.

‘It is good for the operator to have a seamless solution to enable that handover. We do also provide a push button on our client that makes it voluntary, so if you know you are leaving the building you can activate the handover yourself,’ says Mumford.

Taqua’s ‘play’ is that it can provide as a number of service that are interesting for operators that want to have that VoLTE-like experience, but who are a long way from being able to deliver that as a reality.

‘You can bring all these things in with the environment we offer using our core and client. And as the operator looks to evolve we already have the 4G service calling, which uses the same standards and interfaces, and we add a few things for VoLTE, but we do it when they are ready to implement it,’ sums up Mumford.

‘If you look at a typical technology roll out, there are lots of promises up front, but it takes a long time to roll out something like LTE and it has to mature before you can take out an existing service and be sure the replacement service is seamless and is able to handle everything. So, the operators don’t want to make a mistake with VoLTE,’ he says.

‘The road to VoLTE is through VoWiFi,’ argues Mumford and the reality would appear to bear this out. ‘Look at the UK market,’ he says. ‘EE, Vodafone and Three have all gone VoWiFi first, rather than VoLTE first.’

Few operators now talk about implementing VoLTE without also mentioning Wi-Fi these days – and that should suit Taqua down to the ground.

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