Hit by competition from Reliance Jio, rivals Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular are exploring the possibility of making voice calls ‘totally free’ under their upcoming VoLTE service, according to industry sources.
VoLTE calls can only be made by phones that support 4G voice facility, and an estimated 99% of existing telecom subscribers do not have this technology on their phones.
“They don’t want to upset their existing voice business by making it totally free for everyone, but they need something to counter Jio with,” said an industry veteran tracking the developments.
VoLTE refers to voice over LTE and is a calling facility that is available only on the very latest 4g phones.
Giving this facility ‘free of charge’ along with data packs would not affect the core business of these operators as they get most of their profit from 2G and 3G voice calls and only a small number of people have handsets with the facility.
On the other hand, if they copy Jio’s strategy and also make all calls — including for 2G and 3G subscribers — free, they would not be able to survive and would have to shut down.
The operators believe that their new strategy will help them achieve ‘competitive parity’ with Jio as they would be able to target the top users with it, while not hurting the profit generated from lower and middle rungs.
It is expected that Airtel’s VoLTE service will be ready in December or January, followed by Vodafone and Idea within weeks or days.
Both Airtel and Vodafone have successfully conducted VoLTE trials across the country.
At present, Reliance Jio is offering ‘free voice’ using the voice over LTE technology to anyone who subscribes to a data pack starting at Rs 149 per month.
Idea CEO Himanshu Kapania recently said VoLTE is cheaper compared to traditional technology, but only if we are talking about very high volumes of traffic. For lower utilization levels, he said, both traditional and IP-based technologies serve the purpose equally well.
However, the quality of 4G calls have impressed users. 2G voice calls, on the other hand, are not as rich, and users often struggle to understand the other party in slightly noisy conditions, partly due to the lower quality.
Vodafone, Airtel and Idea have, in recent months, invested heavily in pan-India spectrum to compete on an even footing with Jio. At present, the only major advantage enjoyed by Jio compared to the other three is in coverage due to its use of 850 (band 5) spectrum in partnership with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications.