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January 21, 2009

Does 4G Need VoIP?

By Erik Linask, Group Managing Editor

Whether you believe WiMAX (News - Alert) or LTE will eventually win the battle for 4G supremacy, or feel there is a market for both to succeed long term, it’s hard to deny that the next evolution of wireless communications is on its way. If you’ve followed the space at all, you’re aware of the activity around 4G wireless technology.

And, if you read Jon Arnold’s (News - Alert) column today about the mixed feelings about VoIP, you’ll recognize that quite simple, VoIP is not longer a phenomenon, but is becoming the norm in many cases. 
“We’re now moving into a world where VoIP has value as an application and an enabler of other services, many of which are Web-based,” he writes.  “Nobody’s calling it VoIP, nobody’s selling it as VoIP and nobody’s telling you it’s VoIP – you don’t need to know, and you’re probably not interested.”
That’s not far from the truth. There is still a viable market for “VoIP,” given the number of businesses still learning about IP-based communications, as opposed to traditional TDM telephony. However, for many, who have long since made the jump to an all-IP infrastructure, the assumption is that new voice services are all IP-based, and don’t need to explicitly state it, as was necessary over the past decade, when VoIP was in its infancy.
So, with VoIP alive and well, and certainly not going anywhere — nobody will contest that voice communication isn’t going away — the ability to deploy VoIP over 4G networks is likely to be a key to the success of service providers offering LTE or WiMAX services — but they must first overcome the hurdles that have, thus far, kept Vo4G from becoming more widely accepted, let alone adopted.
The inherent advantage 4G networks have over previous IP networks is they do not face the same bandwidth limitations — in fact, the increased bandwidth is one of their primary benefits, along with mobility and access in areas that present challenges to wired networks. QoS and other means for ensuring voice quality are also inherently not an issue, but they present unique difficulties due to a lack of standards and accepted best practices, because operators simply don’t have enough experience and documentation to guide them.
That experience will come, and, according to analyst firm Maravedis, which has published its latest report on the future of Voice over 4G, VoIP over 4G (Vo4G): Opportunities, Challenges and Deployment Trends, Vo4G is a “necessary revenue-generating application to enable [carriers] too cross over into profitability.”
In fact, with the growth of VoIP — or whatever you choose to call it — and the expected growth of 4G wireless, including delivery of service to underserved areas, the ability to effectively provide carrier-class voice services over wireless networks may be crucial to the its success overall.
The good news, according to Maravedis (News - Alert), is that, “driven by new initiatives set by numerous small to medium-sized WiMAX operators, VoIP is set to gain momentum.”
The rate of deployment — and adoption — is dependent, for the time being, in vendor selection, believes Basharat Ashai, co-author of the Maravedis report, because true working standards and best practices are still undefined, and addressing QoS for voice traffic falls within the purview of vendors and individual operators.
That said, the standards and best practices will come, just as other mobile and wired network standards have been developed and improved over time (consider VoIP quality only a few years ago compared to today). 
“WiMAX and LTE promise to be the first wireless access standards fully capable of supporting VoIP, by incorporating low delay along with sufficient QoS capabilities and bandwidth,” says Fellah.  
Progress will come, though slowly perhaps. Currently, there are less than 300,000 Vo4G subscribers globally, mostly WiMAX-based. The challenge fixed WiMAX providers, specifically, face, is how well can they position WiMAX as a viable alternative to wireline services. In areas with no other broadband access, that will likely not be difficult, but it also may not result in a large enough subscriber base to turn a profit, which is why the development of proven standards and QoS is imperative.
The other factor, of course, is the availability of WiMAX-capable devices. Hardware vendors must also see the potential in the 4G market. As we saw clearly in the U.S., while 3G networks were being built, the pace of development and widespread popularity of services among end users was driven by devices — specifically, the iPhone (News - Alert). 
Maravedis suggests a key driver to WiMAX success — and LTE eventually, though WiMAX currently maintains a sizable advantage and is drawing more attention — is the availability of VoIP capable multimode devices, for instance, enabling access over WiMAX, 3G, and even LTE networks. The development of such devices will provide a significant boost to the value proposition for potential users, and on the operator side, can drive ARPU and subscription rates. 
The benefit of these devices is twofold. They offer a choice of access technologies, allowing users to use the best available network at any given time, but they also ensure their usefulness in areas where multiple access networks aren’t available. That may be the more significant factor until 4G technology grows into its own.
So, yes, there are still challenges to overcome, but vendors and network operators are committed to 4G, and once they have built out their networks and developed service quality standards, Vo4G promises to offer a significant driver for subscribers and the revenue they bring.
There has never been a shortage of early adopters when it comes to technology, and 4G is certainly no exception. So, while much work is yet to be done, experience is already helping drive further innovation. 
TMC President Rich Tehrani recently posed what he called “The Trillion-Dollar Question” — is WiMAX dying? Based on the latest research, the answer is likely no, but the question still remains as to who the dominant players will be. This is but one of the key questions that will be addressed, along with the very latest development in the 4G space, at the 4G Wireless Evolution event in Miami, February 2-4. 
It is collocated with INTERNET TELEPHONY Conference & EXPO and promises an exciting set of conference sessions, covering regulation, standards, technology, applications, and more. These sessions will be presented by the very industry insiders that are at the forefront of 4G development today and can offer firsthand experience to help guide your own decisions.

Erik Linask (News - Alert) is Group Managing Editor of TMCnet, which brings news and compelling feature articles, podcasts, and videos to nearly 3,000,000 visitors each month. To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Erik Linask


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