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General News Airtel, Vodafone & Idea to soon launch VoLTE to protect low-end subscriber base
NEW DELHI: By September end, most mobile phone users across operators will be able to experience HD calling, courtesy voice over LTE (VoLTE) technology.

With low-cost 4G feature phones set to enter the market, incumbents Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea are set to roll out VoLTE services – which offers voice in a data format - likely ​by end of September, with the timing coinciding with a critical mass of low-cost VoLTE-ready devices being available in the market.

Launching such services could become critical to protect incumbents’ low-end subscriber base who could move out to Reliance Jio which is running an all-VoLTE network and offers voice for free. Analysts add that in a scenario where the industry is under tremendous pricing pressure, VoLTE is set gain in importance as it can be delivered at a lower cost per minute than traditional voice.

“Airtel’s VoLTE plans are on track having kicked off field or commercial trials in Mumbai and Delhi, and it will soon launch the service commercially in India,” a person familiar with the matter told ET. Another person said that Vodafone did basic trials of the technology, and will launch VoLTE services soon.

VoLTE allows an operator to offer both voice and data with voice being just another application that rides on an LTE data network, a technology that newcomer Jio has adopted. Incumbents currently offers calling on the legacy circuit-switch technology.

An Airtel spokesperson said that the telco is piloting VoLTE in a few places, but didn’t comment on launch timelines. Vodafone and Idea didn't comment on ET queries, but Idea managing director Himanshu Kapania recently said that the No. 3 telco would introduce VoLTE over the next two quarters. “We are initially planning to be able to build VoLTE for about 20-25 million customers, which is sufficient enough to be able to take care of our 4G expectations in volume in India.”

Having finished testing, Idea Cellular expects to launch its VoLTE services by the second quarter (July-September) of this fiscal and cover 20-25 million customers.

Rohan Dhamija, partner and head for India and South Asia at Analysys Mason, said that VoLTE device proliferation outside of Jio’s base is probably not at a critical mass, a reason why Airtel and other incumbents haven’t launched VoLTE service yet.

“In fact, given that VoLTE has a lower cost per minute than traditional voice, in a scenario where the industry is under tremendous pricing pressure, in due course the importance of VoLTE could increase,” Dhamija said, adding that telcos should continue with VoLTE testing and be ready to launch commercially once device proliferation reaches critical mass.

A slowdown in the conversion of featurephones to smartphones makes a case for a possible adoption of 4G-capable feature phones with the core value proposition being VoLTE calls, thereby moving the users to the cost efficient 4G networks. “In such a scenario, both Airtel and Idea will look forward to give Jio a competition as VoLTE penetrates featurephone market going forward,” Tarun Pathak associate director at Counterpoint Research said.

Pathak said that 4G feature phones will be a good interim boost for telcos to migrate users from 2G to 4G networks.

“With close to 400 million installed base of featurephone users on 2G, it makes sense for these operators to lock in these users as entry level VoLTE devices that are estimated to grow forward, thanks to low cost solutions from Qualcomm and Spreadtrum,” he said.

Vendors like Micromax and Lava have talked about their VoLTE feature phones, while the Mukesh Ambani-led telco is believed to have plans to launch subsidised devices at around Rs1,000. Additionally, Chinese chipmaker Spreadtrum is working on bringing down starting prices by at least half from the current levels of Rs 3000, which could set the base for players like Airtel and Idea Cellular.

Pathak said that price is the only inhibitor for VoLTE featurephones currently, and telcos can look into subsidizing as a possible option to bring the price down by 20-25%.

Close to 200 million 4G VoLTE feature phones could be sold in India in the next five years, bridging the digital divide, and providing an opportunity for handset makers as well as operators, according to Counterpoint Research.

Airtel Digital HD Recorder / Kerala Vision Digital TV
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