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EE’s plans for 4G and WiFi calls: No more not spots, HD Voice everywhere

EE has announced that its trialling voice calls made over 4G and WiFi connections in a bid to improve both quality and coverage. 

As the UK’s biggest 4G network continues to expand coverage, it’s now turning its attention to how 4G can be used for more than just uploading Snapchat pics more quickly.

In its Borehamwood test centre, EE has been running live trials of 4G voice calls or ‘VoLTE’ – short for ‘voice over LTE’ – with the aim of launching this in 2015.  

EE’s plans for 4G and WiFi calls: No more not spots, HD Voice everywhere
Loud and clear: 4G and WiFi calls from EE will help you get your point across

The main benefits EE hopes this will bring is HD Voice calls, which are already available where there’s 3G coverage, to those parts of the UK where reception is patchy at best, or nonexistent.  

A live trial is due to take place in rural Oxfordshire to see how 4G voice calls on the 800MHz band – which EE won in the 4G spectrum auction – work in previously unconnected areas.

The lower 800MHz frequency is better suited to delivering data and voice to rural areas than the 1800MHz band, which is currently being used by EE to deliver 4G elsewhere in the country. 4G signals in the 800MHz band are capable of travelling over great distances, making 800MHz ideal for providing coverage in sparsely populated rural areas.

Fotis Karonis, chief technology officer at EE said: “4G calling, or VoLTE, is an exciting technology that we’re going to be trialling in the coming months using our low frequency spectrum, bringing one of the world’s best voice and data services to a part of rural Britain that has previously been unconnected.

“When we have rigorously tested the performance of 4G calling and made sure that it matches our 2G and 3G quality, we’ll launch it nationwide on our 4G network.”

EE’s 4G network is currently available to roughly 72 per cent of the population. By the end of 2015, every mobile network should be delivering 4G to 98 per cent. The 4G calls trial will expand coverage in rural areas using the 800MHz spectrum for the first time.

As well as reaching folks in the sticks, 4G calling will also be faster. Tom Bennett, EE’s director of network services told Recombu that on average, the time spent waiting for a call to connect is current around 7-8 seconds on EE’s network. With 4G, you should hear the other person’s dial tone in less than a second.

On top of 4G calls, EE is also looking at how indoor not spots can be patched over – with WiFi.

We’ve seen companies like Virgin Media and Kineto Wireless do this in the past with apps like Smart Call and Signal Boost.

While these have worked well and in the case of SmartCall, help to give your unused landline minutes a new lease of life, what EE wants to do is to take this whole process away from apps. Having to fire up a separate program every time you want to leverage your WiFi is hassle. EE wants it to happen automatically.

You’ll make and receive calls just as you normally would, except you’re connected to WiFi, not the mobile network.Bennett said: “It’s natural, it’s the same as using your phone. You just go into the dialler and make a call. There’s no app, just use the phone’s in-built functionality.”

As soon as you get to work or come home and connect to WiFi, voice calls, texts and picture messages will be automatically carried over your broadband connection.

You make and receive calls just as you normally would, with the exception that you’re connected to WiFi, not the mobile network. Minutes will come out of your monthly allowance, like normal, so don’t go thinking you can take advantage of the free WiFi in Starbucks or Costa or wherever.

The point of WiFi calling isn’t to rinse high street access points to make calls, it’s designed to help out in places where mobile signal simply can’t reach. Signals on the 800MHz band might be good for travelling distances and getting into some homes, but in buildings with thicker walls where there’s no coverage at all, WiFi calling will come into its own.

Of course, if the WiFi in your home sucks, then you’ll need to do something about that.

EE expects that WiFi calling will launch in autumn, with the latest handsets capable of supporting the feature. EE wouldn’t name any phones and refused to comment on it working on the Apple iPhone 6. The network expects the majority of phones sold over the next two years to be compatible with WiFi calling.

As for when 4G voice calls will arrive, EE expects that this won’t happen until sometime in 2015, depending on the results of the trials.

Whatever the results, Bennett said that 4G voice calls won’t launch until they can guarantee a dropped call rate that’s comparable to or better than what’s currently achievable on the 2G and 3G networks.  

The percentage of dropped calls currently experienced by EE customers is currently 0.6 per cent. By the end of the year EE wants this kicked down to 0.45 per cent.

To help with achieving this, the myEE app for iOS and Android will automatically reporting on any not spots you run into, immediately sending EE a report.

Bennett told us that all data that any data that could identify you is anonymised and discarded – only information about the location of the phone is stored, telling EE where it’s network is the weakest.

If you’re an EE customer and you’re getting dropped calls, then you can download the MyEE apps and be part of the solution.

Of course, depending on the phone you’ve got it might not matter – you might just be not be holding it right

Check out our short interview with Tom Bennett below, where he outlines EE’s plans for clearer calls in greater detail. 

Image: Garry Knight/Flickr

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