By John Hoadley, Chief Technology Officer of Taqua

Ahead of the impending launch of WhatsApp Voice, Voice Over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi) offers communications service providers an opportunity to take the fight to the OTT messaging providers with improved user experiences.

While operators have been lamenting the loss of messaging revenues to OTT players for years, 2014 has seen the battle spread to voice like never before.

Attendees at Mobile World Congress crowded to hear Mark Zuckerberg explain his plan to bring connectivity to every single person on the planet. While Zuckerberg offered partnerships and more profitable models to realise the dream, WhatsApp’s Jan Koum revealed he would soon allow users to make voice calls on the app too.

Operators now face stark choices. Do they sidle up to Facebook or refuse revenue sharing deals and go on the offensive themselves? 

The WhatsApp voice announcement increases the competition on operators’ voice revenue stream. Even though voice revenues are declining in the US and Western Europe the stakes are still huge.

As a result, operator strategies are changing to defend their revenue and find new opportunities in three ways. Firstly, by bundling – having customers pay for an overall bundle which includes voice, messaging and data they minimise the pricing advantage of OTT voice or messaging.

Secondly, by embracing Wi-Fi themselves – providing an integrated VoWiFi offering and building their own Wi-Fi deployments.

Thirdly, operators are providing higher quality/segment targeted offerings; from a technology point of view this will include the evolution to VoLTE over time.

Sprint, the third largest US wireless network operator, revealed in the days ahead of MWC that it had begun to offer VoWiFi services to enhance voice and messaging services for its customers. The service launched with two Samsung Android phones and plans are to gradually roll out the capability to other devices throughout 2014.

An integrated VoWiFi service provides advantages that an OTT voice service cannot. It allows transparent user experience for voice and messaging whether the user is in Wi-Fi or cellular coverage.

Further, OTTs such as Skype, Viber and WhatsApp in the future provide a separate user interface and do not leverage the existing network features. Integrated VoWiFi gives the user the benefits of using Wi-Fi for voice and messaging where possible but now the subscriber has the convenience of just a single call log, message log and interface.

There are also coverage improvements for the subscriber, as VoWiFi provides coverage in areas where the Wi-Fi signal is strong but cellular is weak. This occurs at cell edge, within buildings and high-rise buildings above the 10th floor.

Lastly, operators benefit by offloading of the cellular voice access network, just like data offload over Wi-Fi, voice and messaging offload will reduce the carriers’ 3G radio needs.

Carriers need to embrace Wi-Fi, and can ensure this by providing price competitive voice and messaging services when the subscriber is in Wi-Fi coverage.

It’s hard to predict the partnership opportunities this may bring but there is already a lot of activity by carriers, such as Wi-Fi build outs and VoWiFi trials.

VoWiFi is expected to remain attractive for quite some time, given that rolling out VoLTE is proving more difficult than expected. Not only that, LTE coverage worldwide only covers 10-15 percent of subscribers.

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