As the first 5G phones are less than a year away, a new report from FierceWireless explores how 5G networks and devices will handle — and evolve — traditional voice calls. In short, U.S. carriers expect to continue using 4G Voice over LTE (VoLTE) for the near future, but exciting new 5G voice services are in the works that will radically improve phone calling.
VoLTE was originally rolled out in 2014 with the promise of dramatic improvements to voice call quality. During a VoLTE call, muddy and bassy conventional phone audio is replaced with more dynamic, clear sound that’s akin to being in the room with your caller. Since early 5G phones will simultaneously maintain connections with 5G and 4G/LTE networks, they will begin by making VoLTE calls.
Currently, international standards organization 3GPP is working on an improved 5G standard for phone calls. According to Fraunhofer IIS, the 3GPP is developing support for “multiple audio channels, immersive audio, and VR communication use cases,” including sound quality improvements for both video and audio-only calls. Tantalizingly, Fraunhofer expects 5G to enable “spherical” calls that immerse each caller in the other’s environment — for example, letting a caller in an office hear and see a beach, while the caller at the beach can hear and see the office.
The key question is when these new features can be expected and, unfortunately, there’s no timeline at this point. Moreover, carrier VoLTE adoption was much slower than expected; even today, there’s no guarantee that a call made from a T-Mobile customer to a Verizon customer will automatically use the superior standard.
Today’s phone calls only use VoLTE if both callers are on the same or interoperable LTE networks, connected to VoLTE-compatible towers, and using VoLTE-ready phones. Otherwise, the call will fall back to a traditional, lower-quality connection. FierceWireless notes that the top three U.S. carriers currently have strong VoLTE support, including 100 percent of T-Mobile’s and Verizon’s towers, and most of AT&T’s. Fourth-place carrier Sprint is still working on a fall 2018 VoLTE deployment.
Given the current state of their LTE networks, carriers appear to be in no rush to support 5G voice calling. Verizon completed early tests of 5G video calling and 5G voice calling earlier this month, and Europe’s Vodafone followed with a similar voice call test that switched from 4G to 5G networks — though none of the tests included the audio enhancements currently in the works with 3GPP. However, as the carriers are already working to upgrade their network hardware from 4G to 5G, groundbreaking voice calling improvements could become only a software update away.