5G standalone will become ‘tipping point’ for VoLTE, analyst says

The slow and steady rollout of voice over LTE (VoLTE) across the globe could pick up speed as operators prepare to deploy 5G standalone networks.


Dell’Oro Group senior analyst Dave Bolan predicts the rollout of 5G standalone networks will represent a “tipping point” for VoLTE, as the technology is poised to play a vital role in voice over 5G applications.


Take-up of VoLTE technology around the world has been slower than most expected. VoLTE infrastructure market revenues declined in the first quarter of 2019, according to a new report from Dell’Oro Group. VoLTE market revenue dipped 10% year over year in Q1 2019 globally, representing a bit of a surprise for Bolan. “The first quarter was a little softer than expected,” Bolan told FierceWireless in an email.


The decline follows a 9% dip in Q2 2018, which Bolan attributed in part to the U.S. ban on ZTE. At the time, Bolan predicted that 2018 market revenues for VoLTE would be slightly lower than 2017 levels, but that growth would return in 2019. “I am holding my forecast for 2019 to be higher than 2018,” he said.


VoLTE offers many benefits to operators, including reducing the overall use of networks by turning voice calls into data sessions, and enabling operators to use spectrum that was once dedicated to voice calls for LTE instead.


But, Bolan said service providers in some regions are not aggressively promoting VoLTE, despite the fact that LTE subscriptions are on the rise. He pointed to CAPEX costs as a possible hindrance to VoLTE deployments, as well as spectrum assets and geographic coverage. “VoLTE requires good RF coverage to work properly. Therefore, service providers that offer LTE at higher frequencies need more cell sites to get the same quality voice coverage,” he said.


Operators looking to offer voice over 5G will need to pursue VoLTE more aggressively. “In a 5G standalone network, circuit-switched fallback is not supported for voice; only fallback to VoLTE is supported if voice over 5G is not available,” Bolan told FierceWireless. “Leading edge service providers that want to introduce 5G standalone first are realizing this and will be more aggressive in migrating all of their subscribers to LTE with VoLTE for voice in preparation for 5G standalone.”


Overall, Bolan believes the fundamentals of the VoLTE market are still positive, as the penetration rate of VoLTE continues to grow in some regions. In the U.S., which is considered a mature LTE market, operators like Verizon are approaching a 100% VoLTE subscription rate, while T-Mobile has said more than 80% of all voice traffic is carried over VoLTE.


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Smaller operators like Bluegrass Cellular, U.S. Cellular, Southern Linc and Eastern Kentucky Network have also begun to launch VoLTE services, following the lead of the market leaders.


Bolan said the Asia-Pacific region is seeing the most VoLTE growth at present, driven largely by VoLTE deployments in China and India. “Actually, APAC [license] shares keep growing as the other regions lose share,” he said.


And, Huawei is now dominating in VoLTE infrastructure. For the first time, Huawei has surpassed Nokia as the top VoLTE vendor in Q1 2019, according to Dell’Oro’s report. Together, Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson make up some 70% of the market.