Operators Dialing up Wi-Fi Calling to Deliver a Better Customer Experience

By: Steve Northridge, director, product marketing, Oracle Communications

Customers expect to make calls and browse the internet wherever they are. Stepping outside to take a call is a nuisance many people can no longer tolerate. In fact, a study conducted by YouGov and commissioned by SpiderCloud Wireless found that 74 percent of mobile subscribers are willing to switch providers if it means better service at home and at the office.

Quality of service inside buildings presents a serious threat for mobile operators’ ability to retain loyal customers and grow bottom lines. To respond to this growing need, many communication service providers (CSPs) have made it a priority to increase voice coverage indoors and in spaces that don’t provide adequate coverage from the macro network. They are increasingly turning to “Wi-Fi Calling” – a technology that reduces indoor coverage issues by allowing customers to seamlessly roam between the macro network and Wi-Fi for calls and messaging.

How Did We Get Here?

Wi-Fi Calling has emerged as a way to extend cellular coverage, especially indoors, by moving traffic intelligently between LTE and Wi-Fi connections. It enables voice calling and messaging over Wi-Fi using the same mobile number and the native dialer on the phone, as opposed to a unique identity, such as Skype or WhatsApp.

While the technology has been available for some time, CSPs have been slow to adopt it due to standard specification issues. The initial attempt by the industry to leverage Wi-Fi – called Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) – was not successful as it required handset support as well as a complex and expensive architecture. In fact, UMA handovers did not work reliably, so eventually UMA was dropped.

So why are CSPs making the transition to Wi-Fi Calling now? What changed?

  • Seamless handovers: The current generation of Wi-Fi calling performs handovers the same way as on the LTE network, ensuring greater reliability and customer satisfaction. Operators no longer need to add special procedures or equipment for call handover.
  • Existing architecture: Wi-Fi calling leverages the existing Evolved Packet Core and IMS standards ensuring all services offered over LTE can be offered seamlessly to customers over Wi-Fi.
  • Handset support getting traction: While handset support for Wi-Fi Calling is still required, this received a big boost when Apple added the feature in its iOS 8 update, pushing other handset manufacturers to incorporate it into their handsets.

Why is Wi-Fi Calling the Answer?

For starters, Wi-Fi is inexpensive and everywhere. Installing access points is very cost effective and since many Wi-Fi access points are customer owned and already in place, the cost to the operator is $0. Wi-Fi Calling is also the solution to dropped calls indoors—eliminating the age old question, “Can you hear me now?” in an era where cellular networks are having an increasingly harder time penetrating modern buildings. Most importantly, according to a recent study by Mobidia, as much as 80 percent of all mobile data is already going over Wi-Fi, and a big portion of this traffic is tied to calls conducted through mobile applications.

CSPs can also decrease customer churn with Wi-Fi Calling as it enables the CSPs to mitigate roaming charges and deliver services out-of-market as well. For cable or Internet service providers (ISPs), Wi-Fi Calling allows them to leverage their Wi-Fi deployments to offer voice as part of a multi-play option.  Cable and ISPs can treat Wi-Fi Calling as the primary voice radio access and only hand-off to a mobile operator when necessary—possibly in an MVNO relationship.

Lastly, another benefit to Wi-Fi Calling is the ability to include IMS-enabled value-adds. With IMS-based technologies, operators have the potential to differentiate their voice and messaging services with options such as unified mailboxes, video calling, or conferencing.

In summary, Wi-Fi Calling presents a whole range of benefits to operators and users, including:

  • Improved indoor coverage with the same phone number and the native phone dialer, instead of third-party applications.
  • Significantly lower battery consumption as the capability is native to the device and does not require an application to run.
  • Reduced operator expenses by leveraging Wi-Fi access points deployed by the operator or owned by customer to increase voice coverage, instead of investing in additional cell towers and buying more spectrum.
  • Out-of-market service availability without incurring high roaming changes.
  • Introduction of innovative services such as video calling, unified mailboxes and conferencing.

But is it Secure?

When opening up a network to Wi-Fi and the internet, security becomes a concern. CSPs risk exposing themselves (and more importantly, their customers) to a variety of threats including man-in-the-middle attacks, session hacking, eavesdropping, denial of service and unauthorized access. These threats are due in part to a lack of ownership and management of Wi-Fi access point by the mobile carrier.

As such, CSPs need to authenticate and authorize devices and access points to protect users and the network from attacks and overload. Gateway security solutions provide secure access over untrusted networks through the use of an ePDG (evolved Packet Data Gateway). The ePDG is the gateway between the Internet, the untrusted network, and the mobile core. It controls key functions such as security and authentication, acting as the secure termination node for Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) tunnels established between the device and the mobile core.

Using an ePDG allows mobile operators to leverage Wi-Fi calling while preventing the security threats of connecting to a network CSPs do not directly control.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Operators are increasingly turning to Wi-Fi Calling as it delivers clear service in places where mobile connections are not as strong. The service is virtually invisible to users, as handoff is handled seamlessly and the same voice dialer and mobile number are used for calls and messaging. By enabling better indoor coverage and solving the “radio tight” modern building structures problem, operators are able to improve customer satisfaction, reduce churn and cut operating costs.