ITEM: The Economic Times Of India reports that Bharti Airtel has reportedly awarded a $60 million contract deal to Nokia to implement VoLTE technology on its network, which appears to be a direct challenge to Reliance Jio, which launched VoLTE services in September.
It’s not, exactly – Airtel has been trialing VoLTE via a smaller IMS contract awarded to Nokia earlier this year. Sources told the Economic Times that initial pilot trials have been successful enough that Airtel is prepared to go for a pan-India launch.
However, Reliance Jio is evidently responsible for a sudden upsurge in VoLTE handset demand in India, according to another Economic Times report, thanks to the September launch of its LTE network:
While Jio launched its services in early September, Internet search volumes for VoLTE phones jumped 40% sequentially in the quarter ended September, an indication of the consumer interest, show data from 91mobiles.com. More than 14 million VoLTE-enabled smartphones are estimated to have been shipped into India in the September quarter, nearly twice the number in the previous quarter, Cybermedia Research said. The firm expects 70% of 4G smartphones in the past quarter to be VoLTE-enabled.
The Economic Times also reported that internet searches for VoLTE handsets under Rs 5,000 have also surged, which has convinced vendors to sell more VoLTE-compatible handsets at lower rather than premium prices.
There are two main factors in play here: (1) Reliance Jio’s network is pure-play LTE, which means it only supports VoLTE for voice calls, not old-school circuit-switched voice, and (2) Reliance Jio has been offering free voice calls for life (which is why VoLTE handset demand in India has actually been higher in small towns and rural areas than in the urban centers, the Economic Times report says).
The success of that campaign has apparently pressured Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular to come up with similar voice bundles – but they need VoLTE to be able to do that cost-effectively enough to compete with Jio, Rohan Dhamija, India and South Asia head at Analysys Mason, told the Economic Times.
Vodafone and Idea are reportedly looking into it, but Airtel appears it will be the first to respond to Jio’s VoLTE challenge, and it’s in a good position to do so, the report says:
Industry watchers said Airtel may be in an advantageous position if it launches VoLTE services any time soon, considering that Jio hasn’t been able to publicise the benefits of this technology due to the interconnection issue, which the 4G entrant claimed is resulting in massive call failures.
Airtel will use VoLTE as a complimentary service to its existing voice offering. In case VoLTE is not available in an area, Airtel users would be able to fall back within the network to lower technologies, which are 2G and 3G, industry watchers say.
In any case it’s an interesting chapter in the VoLTE saga, given that operators initially struggled to find a business case for VoLTE apart from the spectral efficiencies. In India at least, the business case appears to be better bundles.
(NOTE: Neither Nokia nor Bharti Airtel have officially acknowledged a pan-India VoLTE contract.)