WiFi Calling shows the path to 5G

WiFi Calling refers to the ability to place and receive calls over a WiFi network, using the native dialing (and video and text) interface that comes with your mobile phone. Both Android and iOS devices support WiFi Calling, and it’s available through most major carriers in the US.

WiFi Calling lets mobile subscribers take advantage of the vast network of WiFi access points available all over the world. These become part of the calling network so that coverage is greatly expanded, including important low-signal areas such as the home.

Although from a user standpoint it may seem like a simple feature, it’s a significant impact for networks and business models. And it’s part of a much larger shift toward 5G.

One impact has happened already. In part due to WiFi Calling, subscriber minutes are now unlimited for most service plans. Users no longer need to track service time when using their phones.

It’s also causing operators recognize the strategic importance of their WiFi access network. Many internet providers now provide free or discounted modem/WiFi devices as part of their service plans that have both public and private access points. Subscribers receive a WiFi device with a private network for personal use, but that also broadcasts a public access point that expands the provider’s footprint. This industry practice was challenged in a class-action lawsuit in 2014 and continues.

It’s not a coincidence that several internet providers have recently introduced mobile phone service. Although initially these are OTT products leverage existing carrier cell networks, they will rely more and more on WiFi as 5G becomes mainstream and blends the distinction between cell and WiFi service. WiFi Calling is a small, strategic pivot towards this future reality.

A critical aspect of WiFi Calling is that, although the user can connect through any available network and access point, ultimately service is still being delivered over their subscribed carrier network (including OTT). That means all of the carrier’s infrastructure is still being used. And that’s important for call quality, but it’s most significant for billing. It’s different than 3rd party calling apps like Skype and Tango. And this is a key aspect that will characterize new products in the 5G ecosystem.

WiFi Calling enables new business models, many of them transparent to the user. For example, coverage and call quality will continue to increase as devices become sophisticated in seamlessly switching between cell and WiFi networks, and leveraging simultaneous connections.

Carrier networks will increase in sophistication due to these impacts, as well as in importance of their role in business models. 802.11ax, QoS, edge networks, and OTT models will continue to develop in importance among many other operational aspects of carriers’ business.

These industry tectonics are a glimpse of the future of 5G: Hundreds of millions of discrete small signal access points. Fast, continuous network switching. And the emergence of brand new, powerful business models that may be transparent to the user, driven by large scale changes in infrastructure and operations. And the continued convergence of cable and communications providers, mobile providers, and a growing sector of IoT industries as companies continue to coordinate more and more closely to deliver the future.

5G means the introduction of a generation of compelling new products, driven by huge changes in business models, internal systems, and infrastructure. WiFi Calling is a small example of what is coming.


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