T-Mobile launches 5G voice in parts of Portland, Salt Lake City

T-Mobile has been talking for a long time about testing Voice over 5G, or Voice over New Radio (VoNR). Today, it announced that voice services based on the 5G standard are commercially available in limited areas of Portland, Oregon, and Salt Lake City, Utah.  

T-Mobile, which is the only national U.S. carrier with a 5G standalone (SA) network, thus far hasn’t made a lot of noise about what it can do with 5G SA since it was launched about two years ago.

But now, with the launch of 5G voice services – albeit a very limited launch – the “un-carrier” is boasting about how it’s one step closer to “truly unleashing” its 5G SA to enable things like network slicing that rely on a continuous connection to a 5G core. With SA 5G, there’s no need for an underlying 4G LTE core.

During a UBS Future of 5G event on Friday morning, T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray acknowledged the VoNR launch and how it’s “a horrible acronym” that everybody pronouces differently. 

But a lot of folks will wonder why it's taking so long. Haven’t they been doing voice services since the first cellular phone?

It’s one of these things where every time there’s a generational shift in technology, “we kind of leave voice behind,” he said, because everyone gets excited about things like capacity and data rates.

VoLTE, or voice over LTE, was a huge challenge as it moved away from the circuit-switched world. “VoNR is another big challenge,” he said, noting the hiccups experienced by one of T-Mobile’s up-and-coming competitors without naming Dish Network.

Earlier this week, analysts at New Street Research pointed out that if there’s any wrinkle in Dish's 5G deployment, it’s the lack of 5G NR voice services. It’s live in Las Vegas, but Dish has been mum about its other markets.

“VoNR is tough,” Ray admitted, even for a company like T-Mobile with a lot of experience and a mature network in place, so “it’s going to be a tough road for some folks.”

Despite all the attention around data rates, he said voice is still a very important service for a lot of people, and they need to make sure they don't take any steps backward and that 5G voice is better than its predecessor.  

T-Mobile’s partners on its 5G VoNR launch include Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and Qualcomm.

Better voice experience

In the near-term, T-Mobile customers connected to VoNR will notice slightly faster call set-up times, meaning less delay between the time they dial a number and when the phone starts ringing, according to T-Mobile.

“VoNR represents the next step in the 5G maturity journey—an application that exists and operates in a complete end-to-end 5G environment,” said Jason Leigh, research manager, 5G & Mobility at IDC, in the press release. “Migrating to VoNR will be a key factor in developing new immersive app experiences that need to tap into the full bandwidth, latency and density benefits offered by a 5G standalone network.”

T-Mobile said VoNR is available for customers in parts of Portland and Salt Lake City with the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G; it’s expected to expand to more areas and more 5G smartphones this year, including the Galaxy S22. There was no mention of support in the Apple iPhone.