Now that 5G networks are available in most parts of the world, carriers are finally upgrading their mobile voice networks – to the 4G standard. But even though 4G is mature technology for mobile broadband, 4G voice will dominate the market for years to come, and will improve the voice call experience for most users.
Voice calls are an essential service, but a low-margin one. When telcos upgrade to a new wireless generation, they usually prioritize mobile broadband and higher-value services, leaving voice to run on earlier, more mature technologies.
Moving voice traffic to 5G is a slow process
In late 2022, GlobalData polled 50 mobile carriers around the world about their mobile voice plans. The survey found that unsurprisingly, many carriers have not yet moved much voice traffic to 5G voice (known as Voice over New Radio, or VoNR), instead focusing on 4G voice (VoLTE). In fact, the transition from 2G/3G voice is still in progress: globally, 66% of all operators have migrated at least half of their voice traffic on VoLTE, but only eight percent are running 80% or more of their traffic on the standard. Carriers will likely not reach 100% VoLTE until they satisfy certain technical requirements, for example international VoLTE roaming agreements.
When asked why they weren’t moving more quickly to 5G VoNR, carriers pointed to the fact that they didn’t yet have sufficient 5G coverage, and the lack of VoNR- capable handsets on the market. But they also questioned the business case for moving to VoNR. Moving to VoLTE allows carriers to decommission 2G/3G equipment and refarm the spectrum to 4G and 5G, but VoNR does not provide similarly dramatic benefits in cost or infrastructure. Fortunately, the underlying technologies for VoLTE and VoNR are very similar, so investments in 4G voice are also largely investments in 5G voice.
Especially given that the transition to VoLTE is still in progress, we can count on having our conversations over 4G voice for some time to come. This will still be a substantial upgrade for the many people who are still using 2G and 3G voice: VoLTE calls connect faster and have better audio quality. As VoLTE-capable handsets become universal, callers will enjoy higher-quality calls, and mobile carriers will be able to use the common underlying IMS technology to drive interoperability with WiFi and internet calling. Just as 2G supported voice calling until relatively recently, our mobile calls will remain on VoLTE for quite some time.
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