For consumers and businesses, it has felt like 5G has been around forever. That is what often happens early in hype cycles when the promise of technology outpaces the reality of commercial availability.
5G is transformational and will be even more so in the years ahead. But to date, not all 5G is created equal, and distinctions between standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA) 5G are often lost on consumers expecting massive gains in network speed, performance, and application capabilities.
Perhaps 5G Was a Little Misunderstood
As the world tracks the broader transition from 4G to 5G – along with the expected 3G shutdowns in 2022 nearing – the telecommunications industry is relying on VoLTE roaming launches to serve as a critical bridge for global mobile roaming coverage until 5G networks are fully operational.
The stakes for successful VoLTE launches are incredibly high as they allow for the decommissioning of legacy circuit-switched (CS) networks to both repurpose spectrum for 5G and also to ensure 3G voice services can migrate to HD voice on VoLTE networks in the interim. If an operator fails to properly equip their network with a VoLTE or VoLTE roaming alternative before these 3G shutdowns, millions of their subscribers could be left without 3G voice services when roaming on LTE networks. Other applications – specifically machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT devices – that currently utilize 3G will also be affected by the upcoming 3G shutdown.
As the telecom industry debates what a fully realized 5G SA might look like, it must not overlook the VoLTE bridge required to get us from 3G Circuit Switched voice to 5G New Radio (NR). Understanding the current status of VoLTE roaming launches enables us to understand where the global telecom industry needs to prioritize its resources in the coming months.
VoLTE Launches Amid 3G Turndowns in America
In the United States, top-tier operators recognize how critical VoLTE launches are to building truly transformative 5G networks. They recognize the inherent challenges that come with 5G SA, NSA and 5G NR for voice service and, crucially, that VoLTE will serve as a steppingstone to 5G NR in the coming years.
T-Mobile, for example, has addressed the critical need for VoLTE networks and capable devices, describing in a statement to Android Police how the 3G shutdown impacts the future of 5G and the carrier’s plans for VoLTE devices:
“We will be phasing out some older technologies over time to free up even more capacity for LTE and 5G. In preparation for that and to give customers the best experience, those activating new lines at T-Mobile will need a VoLTE capable device, which is all we’ve offered for years now and represents the overwhelming majority of devices on the network.”
In North America, it’s not just top-tier operators acting on the 3G shutdown; TNS has had conversations with smaller operators that are prioritizing VoLTE before 2022. Far more frequently, it is the smaller, and/or international operators that are reluctant to move to VoLTE and instead continue to depend on their 3G network footprint as long as possible.
VoLTE Launches in Europe
The status of VoLTE launches in Europe is largely emblematic of overseas operators in general. Some have already shut down their 3G networks: first with Vodafone Ziggo throughout the Netherlands in February 2020. Vodafone also was responsible for the following network closures – Italy in February 2021 and the Czech Republic in March 2021. Two others followed suit in June 2021 but other than those five, it’s been slow in terms of 3G shutdowns and VoLTE launches.
North American operators have been more aggressive in VoLTE launches ahead of the 3G turndown, more willing to move past hesitancies non-U.S. operators have vocalized around launch costs and complexities. These non-US operators face challenging handset issues, different profiles within SIM cards, and increased logistical hurdles.
However, as the turndown dates become increasingly frequent in the next 14 months, international carriers’ hands will be forced and VoLTE roaming launches will proliferate.
TNS Continues to Launch VoLTE Networks; Monitoring M2M and IoT Devices
According to the industry group GSMA, there has been some progress made globally in the last six months as it relates to VoLTE launches. By April 2021, 225 operators had launched VoLTE for their customers while less than 40 had launched VoLTE roaming. Six months later, 232 operators have launched VoLTE across 106 markets and, most critically, more than 50 have launched VoLTE roaming. That’s tangible progress and a trend that must continue in the coming months ahead of the anticipated 3G shutdowns in early 2022.
TNS, for its part, remains committed to helping operators prioritize VoLTE launches – both from a market education perspective and a tactical perspective as well. In total, the organization has launched 22 individual VoLTE roaming launches for eight different operators regionally across the US.
While TNS continues to monitor the global status of 3G shutdowns and VoLTE launches, 3G voice services aren’t the only aspect of telecommunications that will rely on VoLTE following the 3G turndown. A significant portion of M2M and IoT devices are still operating on 3G, and with the impending shutdown, will need to be replaced or upgraded to support 4G, Narrowband IoT for ultra-low bandwidth devices (NB-IoT) (a low power wide area technology that improves the power consumption of new IoT devices and services) and Category M 1 (M2M) LTE-M (a mobile communication standard deployed to offer more reliable signals to devices and sensors).
Upgrading these devices to ensure they are 4G capable, and eventually, 5G capable, will be a major expense as well as critical to ensuring ongoing M2M and IoT revenue. VoLTE home network and roaming launches are significant to the telecom industry on a global scale. With the 3G turndown fast approaching, mobile operators can no longer justify relying on 3G networks for national or global footprint. 5G is on its way; if operators fail to use VoLTE as a critical bridge to the next generation of wireless networks, their customers may lose access to mobile footprint, data, and voice services that mobile subscribers have come to expect and rely on every day.
Nina is Director of Product Management at TNS, with specific responsibility for roaming product strategy and development. She can be reached at email@example.com.