LAST week Vodacom made its first phone call using VoLTE. Translated into English, it means that Vodacom has made a call using data networks, not the traditional voice networks that have been used until now.
To the industry observer, this single call is filled with promise. It is worth unpacking why — and how — the consumer will benefit.
First, voice over long-term evolution (VoLTE) is true 4G, the purist will argue, because it surpasses the 100gigabits per second (Gbps) threshold that is the technical definition of true 4G.
For the record, the current so-called 4G (the definition was the subject of a challenge by Vodacom at the Advertising Standards Authority in a tit-for-tat advert war with Cell C a few years ago) is considered not fast enough, and the label has been given even to such slow technology as HSPA+ with its 22megabits per second. You see how the anoraks like to haggle?
Second, it’s the beginning of a major shift in the way phone calls will be made, to become just another form of data moving across a data network.
Of course, voice calls will get priority above a YouTube video, say, but the event marks the moment when voice became just a subset of data as a whole.
It will take many years before such 4G networks become the norm, but it is slowly starting to happen. And it has to happen.
After decades of healthy profits (especially in South Africa, where a virtual Vodacom and MTN duopoly has kept call costs too high), the revenue from voice calls is plummeting, as people shift away from making phone calls on their mobiles and towards using the devices as minicomputers for social networking, texting, Facebooking and Instagramming.
If cellphone networks want to remain profitable, they need to increase their efficiency — and that requires better use of the radio spectrum they employ for transmitting calls, which these more efficient new data technologies enable.
For the record, the current so-called 4G (the definition was the subject of a challenge by Vodacom at the Advertising Standards Authority in a tit-for-tat advert war with Cell C a few years ago) is considered not fast enough, and the label has been given even to such slow technology as HSPA+ with its 22megabits per second.
A corollary is that the networks need better access to the existing spectrum, especially the frequencies now being used for traditional TV broadcasts.
Often called the digital dividend — the really useful payoff these underutilised frequencies will provide when they are used for wireless broadband — they are at the centre of a botched government-led attempt to transition the TV signal for digital terrestrial television.
The internationally agreed deadline for the switchover, set by the International Telecommunications Union, is June 2015.
SA is hopelessly behind, and this is not helped by the lethargy of previous communications ministers (except the hard-working Yunus Carrim) and the infighting in the broadcast industry (MultiChoice and e.tv specifically) over the type of decoder that will be required.
It’s yet another long, seemingly intractable dispute that the incompetence of government and the inexplicable decision to divide an already useless department into two has only worsened.
Welcome to the Zuma years, filled with too many deputy ministers and not enough hard, practical decision making.
Meanwhile, other valuable and mostly unused spectrum for 4G and LTE (long-term evolution) frequencies is also going to waste because Sentech and other state-owned companies have access but not the budget to use them efficiently.
New MTN CEO Ahmad Farroukh even hinted that mobile calls would one day be free — something that has been the case in various parts of the world when you call someone on the same network.
"Voice will be a commodity where you pay [a certain] amount per month and have [unlimited capacity].
"It will have a shock [effect] at first — everybody will talk, they won’t sleep, but then it will decrease to normal levels," Farroukh told news site TechCentral.co.za.
All this is great, but the data prices, which are still the rich vein of profit, need as much attention from Icasa as interconnect rates have had. Then we’ll have real reason to celebrate.