VoIP Over 3G Wireless Gets Real

Updated: April 30, 2009

Mobile providers will shift toward delivering VoIP over 3G wireless networks in 2008, a report published this month predicts. According to Larry Hettick, the report's author and a principal analyst at Current Analysis Inc., mobile providers will introduce IMS (IP multimedia subsystems) supported VoIP, which goes beyond SIP (Session Initiation Pprotocol) and offers more robust service to customers. This trend will take place more slowly in the U.S., while Europe and Asia take the lead.

Once VoIP over 3G begins to take hold, U.S. mobile carriers can begin to bring credible unified communications services to their enterprise mobility portfolios. This will allow hosted solutions inside the central office and off-premise solutions to work equally well, as PBX functionality expands and enables better services from voice call features. It will also enable unified communication in which voice mail, email and fax converge into a single portal.

New Options, Low Cost

VoIP over 3G can open up a whole new world of possibilities for both carriers and users. From providing mobile features to laptops and improving mobile features in CRM software to offering customers a chance to click a Web page and listen to voice mail, carriers can offer a range of features at often-minimal costs.

Still, unlike companies in Europe and Asia that hold both wireless and wireline networks, major carriers in the U.S. are further behind. Some providers are offering 3G services, but major carriers like AT&T Wireless , Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA Inc. are not yet offering VoIP over mobile on a commercial basis.

However, Hettick said there are indications that the movement toward this trend is growing. "If you look AT&T or Verizon, they have a huge enterprise customer base of wireline customers, and they need to account for both protecting their wireline base as well as integrating it with a wireless platform," he said.

According to Hettick AT&T's acquisition of BellSouth , in conjunction with its wireless division (formerly Cingular Wireless), has moved the company to look at delivering services equally well on both wireless and wireline networks. Verizon Wireless has hinted that it will be using its EV-DO Revision A technology for conversational voice, but as yet has not announced plans for VoIP over 3G. Meanwhile, Sprint has pushed further into the wireless market by providing advanced enterprise mobility services. At this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sprint chief technology officer Barry West said the company will launch its next-generation WiMax high-speed wireless network in April.

Still AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless have lagged behind Asian and European carriers in providing mobile unified communications. The reason? They have focused on a wireline infrastructure to the enterprise. Now that 3G networks have been built out, these companies are looking at the services they can port to wireless and wireline equally. In fact, while some speculate that VoIP is giving 3G a new lease on life, Hettick argued that it's the reverse.

"One thing that's really important for VoIP over mobile is that VoIP in a cellular network takes more capacity from the cellular network than a standard cellular network call, and so they really did need the greater capacity that a 3G network brings in order for VoIP to make sense from a pure voice call perspective," Hettick said.

More Disruptive Findings

Hettick's findings echo another report published in November by Disruptive Analysis Ltd., which forecasts 255 million active users of VoIP over 3G by the end of 2012. Users will be dominated by mobile operators , yet penetration will still be below 10 percent of total global mobile subscribers and around 20 percent of all 3G users, according to the report.

The report's author, Dean Bubley, also concluded that Europe and Asia are more advanced than the U.S. in 3G technology improvements, but he noted that all three regions will see companies improving their VoIP over 3G as a way to differentiate themselves — by offering customers more functionality with their PCs, laptops and smartphones .

"Carriers are more likely to do things like flat-rate data plans, while offering a better choice of devices," Bubley said. "They've built up better coverage; where they've built the cell sites, they've got better backhaul connections into the network."

Bubley also noted that the addressable market is not huge, but over the next few years networks will add capacity and device capabilities, and software for VoIP will improve. Eventually, VoIP clients will be preloaded on some handsets.

"When we get to 4G networks — probably starting from 2012 onwards, depending on how you define 4G — the expectation is that 4G mobile networks will be all IP, and at that point you have to use voice over IP because there is no circuit there," Bubley said. "You get to 4G and VoIP is mandatory unless you want to carry on running an older network in parallel in perpetuity."

Forrester analyst Lisa Pierce said that with the exception of select applications like push-to-talk over 3G, it's unlikely that 3G providers — especially those in the U.S. — will improve performance of the 3G networks to the point that conversational VoIP would operate well over 3G services. Since 4G networks are IP-based by definition, it's much more likely that providers will invest in 4G for this purpose.

"If 4G is going to be in service in four to five years, why would a provider bother doing something else in the interim? Especially when there is no compelling financial reason," Pierce said. "Quite frankly, from an expense perspective, this would involve having to invest much more heavily than carriers plan, and in some cases that could mean having to reallocate spectrum between traditional cellular service and 3G. Why would they do that? If VoIP is ‘free', financially there is no incentive."

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