#4 – Wi-Fi calling sees huge increase in service launches

Native Wi-Fi calling allows operators to enhance voice services in areas with poor indoor coverage, thus improving customer experience, reducing churn and becoming more competitive to OTTs. Wi-Fi calling can offer cost savings through more cost efficient deployment of extended voice coverage compared to solutions such as indoor cellular. It also enables operators to re-farm more spectrum in the 2G and 3G bands. Despite the benefits, some operators are cautious about native Wi-Fi calling as it reduces their control over voice as a service. Regardless, we still expect to see many new launches of Wi-Fi calling in 2016, being the trigger point for massive roll-outs during 2017 which will be coupled with VoLTE services going live.

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Device support has been a major enabler for native Wi-Fi calling – since Apple first launched the Wi-Fi calling feature in iOS8, the number of popular smartphones supporting Wi-Fi calling has greatly increased. Alongside this trend, operators have shown growing interest in Wi-Fi calling – primarily as a means to enhance indoor voice coverage in a cost efficient way and improve customer experience and decrease churn.

At least 10 operators have already launched native Wi-Fi calling globally, including T-Mobile and Sprint in the US and Vodafone and EE in the UK. In 2016, Northstream foresees at least a five-fold increase in the number of operators that will launch or will be preparing the launch of Wi-Fi calling, followed by mainstream roll-outs in 2017.

Northstream expects that voice can take the same route as data and over time the majority of indoor voice traffic can be served by Wi-Fi. A positive consequence will be that operators can free up and re-farm more spectrum in the 2G and 3G bands that is currently used for voice. In order to provide seamless transition between cellular and Wi-Fi calls, operators need also to support VoLTE, which will boost the use case for VoLTE. In addition Wi-Fi calling can have positive effect on IMS deployments and use cases.

Native Wi-Fi calling raises some strategic questions though. Operators need to closely assess the impact on the enterprise segment, the perceived quality and value of their voice services, as well as what role to play in the provision of Wi-Fi infrastructure. Native Wi-Fi calling is one more step towards the separation of access and service. Wi-Fi can also increasingly be seen as the main competitor to 5G, particularly for indoor voice and data coverage in the future.

Not surprisingly, some operators are cautious to surrender control over the quality of their voice service to a device that now can choose between cellular and Wi-Fi. But overall, we believe that Wi-Fi calling offers more attractive benefits than challenges and we will see a rapid growth of launches in 2016 and 2017.

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