If we have learnt anything throughout 2020, it was that voice remains a staple of communication for mobile users across the globe. A fact highlighted by a 20 to 70 percent spike in usage worldwide in 2020, sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite the positive signal, a voice-related business continuity crisis is looming for operators, which must be addressed immediately - VoLTE and VoLTE Roaming.
According to the GSMA, LTE has been launched by 754 operators and services more than 90% of the population globally - giving domestic customers the higher data speeds they have been craving as the use of broadband applications have skyrocketed. However, when it comes to Voice over LTE (VoLTE), there is a sizable drop in adoption - with only 30% of LTE operators having launched VoLTE services. Even more alarming, just a few dozen operators have launched VoLTE Roaming, according to GSMA estimates.
The slow rollout of VoLTE Roaming can be partly attributed to the extensive and expensive device testing requirements. The GSMA recently did a tally and estimated that there are more than 1,900 VoLTE capable devices available on the market, which would require each being individually tested. In the 2G and 3G era, operators only needed to send SIM cards to conduct partner testing, often using phone simulators. Beyond a SIM card swap, VoLTE requires operators to exchange the actual devices that their subscribers will use while roaming, as each device will need to be tested for compatibility with the partner network configurations. Operators have understandably been slow to roll out VoLTE Roaming agreements due to the costly, complex, and time-consuming preparation this would require. As more and more operators start decommissioning their 2G and 3G legacy networks, the implications for the low adoption of VoLTE Roaming are coming to a head. For example, in the US, the top three operators have announced that they will shut down their 2G and 3G networks by 2022: subscribers roaming in the US without a VoLTE roaming agreement will no longer be able to use voice service, and US subscribers may also not be able to access voice services anymore unless the US operators keep the 2G/3G voice roaming agreements alive. With the closure of legacy networks picking up pace around the world, this problem could become quite common in the coming years.
Voice calls are still relevant when roaming - not just from a business standpoint but from a customer experience perspective. According to Grand View Research, voice roaming accounts for more than 25 percent of roaming revenue. The overall roaming market (including data and SMS) is estimated to reach $88.9 billion by 2027, up from $65.1 billion in 2020. Not only is this a critical revenue stream in 5G, but customers now expect a ‘roam like at home’ experience and that the availability of services does not degrade as they adopt the latest technology. There may be an argument that over-the-top (OTT) applications could be a suitable substitute for the mobile voice service; however, there are still significant shortcomings in these services, such as placing an emergency call, predictable costs, and global reach, that only the mobile voice service can provide.
With the deadline approaching, operators must act on their VoLTE strategy in 2021. Thankfully, there are ways to help operators speed up the process of establishing VoLTE roaming agreements.
Operators can expedite partner network testing by creating a virtual copy of a partner’s radio network at their premises that connects to the partner’s core network. Creating a replica of the partner’s radio network allows operators to avoid the logistics of shipping devices, while significantly speeds up the testing process and troubleshooting. The remote radio testing can also be complemented with a global network of VoLTE test robots to automate a wide range of test functions and services, including VoLTE, SMSoIP, and IMS emergency calls. Not only does this provide an automated, single test toolkit for network and device testing, but it also reduces the test resources needed. While operators ramp up their network and device testing regimes and set up VoLTE roaming agreements, they can deploy an interworking solution, which allows them to accommodate inbound VoLTE customers utilizing the existing 2G/3G roaming agreements, allowing operators to decommission their legacy network while providing continuity of voice service. This solution may also be used to address the need to perform lawful interception on inbound roaming subscribers after a full VoLTE roaming agreement is in place.
2021 must be the year for operators to prioritize the VoLTE Roaming challenge. Not only because of the approaching sunsets of multiple 2G and 3G networks but also because of the concurrent rise of 5G adoption. Standalone 5G standards currently only include support for IMS-based voice services, meaning there is no standardized way for a 3G network to interface with a standalone 5G network in a roaming environment. Therefore, 5G puts more pressure on prioritizing VoLTE and VoLTE Roaming because they will be a prerequisite for offering voice services to roaming customers. These two issues combined will surely create a huge bottleneck for operators as they seek VoLTE Roaming agreements while putting the strain on the network and testing resources required to implement these agreements.
Very shortly, operators will be caught on the back foot when delivering VoLTE and 5G roaming. Though implementing VoLTE Roaming is a daunting task, it is one that operators must undertake in 2021. Thankfully, there are ways that operators can expedite the process to avoid a situation where they offer roaming customers a portfolio of the latest mobile technologies that are inferior to what they have been offering for the past 20 years!
This article has been published on The Fast Mode (www.thefastmode.com - February 4, 2021)