The Apple iPhone 5 has arrived, but its "cellular wideband audio” (i.e., HD voice) capability is currently only usable and available for HSPA networks outside of the United States. Sprint has definitively said it "does not support HD voice on the iPhone 5 at this time." But could it and other carriers get a software upgrade to support HD voice in the future? Certainly the statement "at this time", leaves the door open for two different scenarios.
For an iPhone 5 on a LTE network, Voice over LTE (VoLTE) represents the best chance for HD voice. VoLTE with HD voice is currently turned up on the two largest carriers in South Korea and there's a big wave of VoLTE expected to show up around the globe in 2013. The Global mobile Supplier Association GSA) says there will be 152 LTE networks operating in 65 countries by the end of this year, with 292 operators in 93 countries having made "firm commitments" to deploy commercial LTE networks -- plus another 55 operators in 11 more countries in a pre-commitment stage doing technology trials or studies.
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That's a LOT of networks to snub, even if you are the hottest phone on the planet this minute.
Apple's been known to go its own way at its own pace, but since LTE is the future of cellular networks around the globe it would be difficult to believe that it would turn its back on providing voice services over an LTE network.
So what's the current hold up? "It’s likely Apple is waiting for the IMS infrastructure to be in place and waiting to hear that it’s a top demand from operator," said Kevin Mitchell, director, Solutions Marketing, Acme Packet. "Apple adopts standards, but I don’t think they are at the leading edge of that."
Mitchell said VoLTE would require an IMS-capable client which would be supported in software. He pointed out that Apple already supports SIP-based video chat over both 3G and Wi-Fi networks, so it's not a big leap for me to believe that adding VoLTE support to the LTE iPhone 5 is a software issue.
Carriers have a big interest in seeing voice calls migrate to LTE and VoLTE because they can assign priorities to voice connections, thereby providing them an advantage over over-the-top (OTT) service that would either be treated as "best effort" or alternatively offer an LTE pay-for-priority scheme to make sure voice and video time-sensitive applications got some sort guaranteed quality of service (QoS).
A more interesting item to ponder is why Sprint couldn't get support for "its" CDMA-using HD voice service. The Qualcomm MDM9615 should have baked in support for 1X Advanced, the technology at the heart of Sprint's CDMA upgrades. Sprint pledge to buy $15.5 billion of iPhones from Apple in a four year deal. One might think -- and perhaps financial analysts might want to ponder -- that Sprint's commitment would give it a bit of special love from Apple. Then again, Apple only loves Apple.
I'm willing to bet there's a software upgrade down the road for supporting the Qualcomm 1X Advanced technology, so Sprint will get HD voice on both "sides" of its network -- CDMA and LTE. At this point in time, nobody from Apple or Sprint has said it won't ever happen.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman