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Ears On: MetroPCS’s Voice-Over-LTE Calling
MetroPCS recently introduced voice-over-LTE, one of the biggest changes to mobile phone calling in 20 years. We made a call to see how it sounds.
Voice-over-LTE is a big deal for MetroPCS. The nation’s fifth-largest carrier is low on wireless spectrum, and moving customers from its inefficient older 2G network to its shiny new 4G network will let it convert 2G airwaves to 4G, opening up room for more customers.
“VoLTE is really important for the future. It’s [part of] a long term process to refarm spectrum,” MetroPCS president Tom Keys said at an event today. And with only 22MHz of spectrum on average in each of its 14 markets, Metro needs all the efficiency it can get.
“We have to get off of CDMA and on to LTE which is going to provide 10 times the capacity for our network,” MetroPCS network head Ed Chao said.
VoLTE is more like Vonage than like Skype; it happens entirely in the background. Rather than connecting an old-style circuit switched call, your call is transmitted over an LTE data network – but it still looks like a regular old phone call to you. All the major carriers except Sprint have committed to moving to VoLTE eventually, but MetroPCS is leading the pack. (Verizon has been testing VoLTE since before February 2011, but still hasn’t rolled it out.)
MetroPCS recently released the world’s first VoLTE phone, a version of its existing LG Connect 4G that works on the new calling system. VoLTE is only active in Dallas right now, Chao said, but the company will be able to turn on the feature city by city as it becomes ready. The Connect will be joined later this year by a VoLTE-capable Samsung smartphone, and then by other phones in 2013, according to a slide the company showed.
The company had two VoLTE LG Connect phones at its event today, so I made a call to TheStreet.com’s Gary Krakow across the room.
Did VoLTE Shock My Ears?
So how does VoLTE sound?
It sounds about the same as a regular phone call, and it takes the same amount of time to connect. I tried VoLTE on two LG Connect 4G phones, and interestingly, the two sounded different. One phone was very clear, with a trebly edge. The other one had a bit of an echo to it. But neither sounded any worse than standard MetroPCS voice calls I’ve made on various phones.
They didn’t sound any better, either, which is something to note. Unlike Verizon Wireless, MetroPCS isn’t laying in “HD Voice” with VoLTE. They could do it. Chao told me that current VoLTE calls are on a 7Khz codec, but MetroPCS could use a better quality codec in the future.
Rather than HD Voice, MetroPCS is throwing its lot in with “rich communication services,” or RCS, which are launching later this fall. A global standard, RCS will merge picture and video messaging with phone calls and show who’s online right in your phone book. An open RCS platform could also let third-party app developers integrate voice, for instance letting you do voice chat during multiplayer games or letting you contact bank customer service staff by voice through an app.
“What RCS does together with VoLTE is to allow a great new experience,” Chao said.
RCS is dependent on different carriers allowing interoperability, though. Chao noted that carriers will have to make their own business arrangements to let people make a video call between different networks, just as they had to negotiate SMS interoperability agreements. But he’s confident that will happen, just as the carriers eventually came to terms with accepting text messages from each other.
“It will only be valuable if everybody can communicate with each other no matter what carrier they’re on,” he said.
For more, see MetroPCS: LTE Could Roam With Verizon, AT&T, as well as PCMag’s Hands On With the Samsung Galaxy S III for MetroPCS and the slideshow below.
By Sascha Segan, PCMag