India’s mobile newcomer Reliance Jio may have pushed back its 4G launch multiple times, but the delay has given the upstart not only time to tweak its new network, but also time for the global voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) handset ecosystem to mature to the next level.
One of the reasons the operator pushed back its nationwide launch from December to March is its ambitious goal of not just offering 4G data, but also giving customers high-quality voice using both VoLTE and voice-over-Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi), which sources said has taken longer than expected to get right.
It is targeting availability in the main cities and towns in all states at launch and not rolling out in multiple stages like others. With a nationwide greenfield 4G network and no legacy infrastructure to fall back on, it also has made a major effort to push VoWi-Fi to improve in-building coverage.
The operator has been running “extensive beta tests” for months, with select Reliance Industries group employees invited in various stages to test the 4G network.
Jio’s planned pan-India 4G footprint gives it an advantage over rivals, such as market leader Bharti Airtel, which only can offer VoLTE in nine of the country’s 22 regions and will need to overlay voice on its 2G/3G networks. Jio’s deal to trade 800MHz spectrum with Reliance Communications also strengthens its data for voice offering.
The dual launch, although more complicated and time consuming, is obviously aimed at gaining a competitive advantage over rivals in the country’s hyper-competitive market, with the stated objective of “revolutionising the digital experience for Indian consumers”.
In addition to faster voice connection, VoLTE will allow its users to talk while simultaneously surfing the internet and seamlessly migrate between voice and video calls during an ongoing call with just one click, Jio said in a statement. Users can also switch calls from the VoLTE network to VoWi-Fi and vice versa.
Global VoLTE deployments, which started in 2012, have expanded to 32 in more than 20 countries, according to GSMA Intelligence. While the availability of VoLTE-enabled handsets still remains limited, that is changing quickly, particularly in India. Jio recently noted that most LTE handsets are capable of supporting VoLTE if the manufacturer offers the necessary software upgrade over the air.
The operator announced in December it signed exclusive distribution deals with LG, Lenovo, Micromax and Intex for the production of VoLTE handsets that will be sold via its parent company’s 150,000 retail outlets. Jio has said it wants to control the end-to-end supply chain to ensure seamless bundling of its 4G data and voices services.
Only an estimated 2 per cent of 4G handsets available in India are currently VoLTE-enabled, according to Counterpoint Technology. And with a price of about INR10,000 ($148), VoLTE models cost about twice as much as a standard 4G device.
Jio said it will release 12 VoLTE models under its new Lyf brand by March. Micromax plans to offer 13 VoLTE handsets next month, while LG has said that all future 4G models launched in India will support VoLTE, the Economic Times reported.
Meanwhile, Airtel and Vodafone India, which as recently as December said they weren’t going to rush into VoLTE, last month both named Nokia as their VoLTE supplier and are now testing the technology. Number three Idea Cellular reportedly also is talking to the Finnish vendor about VoLTE. All three are announcing 4G rollouts in additional cities and towns every few weeks, with Vodafone last week saying it soon planned to expand 4G coverage from two to five regions.
BoA-Merrill Lynch forecasts that India’s 4G subscriber base will expand from less than one million last quarter to 90 million by 2018. Average monthly data usage jumped 60 per cent over the past year to nearly 100MB per user, with data accounting for a quarter of operators’ data, according to the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India.
With the VoLTE handset ecosystem developing rapidly and Jio’s 4G network just weeks away from launch, its rivals are taking notice of the potential threat of its expanded offering.