Sprint, LTE, and the Future of Mobile VoIP

by Stuart Zipper

Anyone who follows the cellular phone market, and indeed much of the general public, is by now aware that Sprint has revealed its plans to roll out Long Term Evolution (LTE), and essentially ditch the wireless broadband it’s been touting until now – stuff it calls WiMax (although it isn’t), and claims is 4G (although it isn’t).

What probably isn’t clear to most folks is the implications of Sprint’s actions for those who use VoIP phone service, and particular for those who use or will soon be using mobile VoIP, whether they know it or not. With its planned abandonment of WiMAX, Sprint has now handed LTE a clean sweep of all major cellular carriers in the U.S., a sweep that matches what’s happening pretty much all over the world.

The key is that LTE is tailored for mobile VoIP, whereas no previous digital cellular technology really did a good job. In fact there are predications that cellular carriers will soon start carrying their own customers’ calls using VoIP technology. All that’s missing is some standards work, which is well under way.

The implications for users of phone services such as Phone.com are huge. Certainly until now there have been applications such as mobile office and the iPhone VoIP app. But typically while such applications can be used for data-based tasks ranging using the dashboard to control VoIP business phone service to setting up calls, in the end the calls themselves have been carried using legacy cellular technology. That’s because current cellular wireless data technologies simply don’t have the required latency, and other technical specifications, needed for good VoIP telephony. The only exception has been when WiFi is available to carry a true VoIP call – but that isn’t cellular technology.

The implications also extend to laptop computers that are LTE-enabled, and perhaps even more so to the emerging class of tablet computers, which with Bluetooth can easily serve as phones. Imagine running your mobile office app on a tablet, instead of the relatively tiny screen on a cellphone. Indeed it will be a cinch to control your entire small office phone system from the tablet, from anywhere in the world that you can get an LTE signal.

What’s going to become really interesting in the end is the competition between cellular carriers and today’s VoIP providers. That’s going to mirror the competition between traditional landline carriers and VoIP providers – and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the business community is choosing VoIP carriers, with landline companies’ role morphing into one of providing IP bandwidth, rather than telephony. Cellular carriers, thanks to LTE, may soon find them in the same position – earning their living providing wireless bandwidth, rather than voice service.

By the way, if anyone is interested in my provocative statements about WiMAX and 4G, here’s the scoop: What was to have been WiMAX was a failed technology that was never completed. Instead the WiMAX community bought rights to rename a technology called HiperMan (High Performance Radio Metropolitan Area Network) that had been developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). HiperMan was never really crafted for cellular telephony, but no matter – Sprint, whose business was faltering, grabbed onto it as a way of getting a jump on the higher-speed cellular data market. For that marketing reason, it called what became WiMAX a 4G technology, but truth be told it isn’t because 4G was envisioned as a 100MB/s plus technology. WiMAX at most can do a third of that. But nobody ever formally set specs to define 4G, so Sprint had a field day. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, in defense, started calling their own sub-30 MB/s technologies 4G, further confusing the market. All this should soon go away, as all of the players move to LTE, which has been tested as capable of delivering well over 100 MB/s – theoretically enough for the entire VoIP-based business phone service for a moderate sized company to operate over a single LTE connection.

Stuart Zipper is currently a contributing editor to Communications Technology, a high tech business journalism consultant and freelancer, and the past Senior Editor of TelecomWeb news break.