Recent news that Cell C will provide WiFi calling is a rather welcome development, following in the footsteps of other networks, like Sprint.
But equipment manufacturer Ruckus Wireless is also in the thick of it, with its equipment being used in many local efforts.
So who better to demystify the technology than someone from the company? We interviewed Michael Fletcher, sales director sub-Saharan Africa at Ruckus Wireless.
Hadlee Simons (HS): What exactly is WiFi calling and how does it work?
Michael Fletcher (MF): In its simplest form, WiFi calling is a technology that enables a smartphone user to make and receive calls over a WiFi network as opposed to the typical cellular connection. So ultimately it’s using WiFi to provide smart device coverage. It establishes a secure connection to a mobile network over a wireless network for the delivery of voice and messaging services.
HS: Why should consumers consider WiFi calling over traditional calling?
MF: We're not advocating that consumers should ditch the traditional method of calling. In fact, given our infrastructure challenges and WiFi not being easily accessible to every South African like our global counterparts - mobile operators and other industry players should come on board and view this technology as an opportunity to provide WiFi calling as a complementary service in order to enhance their coverage and increase network capacity.
HS: For a consumer without access to a WiFi hotspot, could they still take advantage of the tech?
MF: Unfortunately not, WiFi calling works on WiFi-enabled mobile devices and you would need to have access to a WiFi hotspot. If you have configured your smartphone to connect to the WiFi in either your home or office, the Smart WiFi App runs automatically once turned on – which then allows you to make calls.
HS: If I remember correctly, Cell C will still be charging the same/a similar rate for WiFi calls as it does for traditional calls. Could we see WiFi calling become "free" like normal VOIP?
MF: We’re still very far from experiencing free WiFi and/or WiFi services as a country. There are initiatives that provide free Wi-Fi to South African citizens in specific geographical placements such as Project Isizwe which is in partnership with the City of Tshwane and Western Cape government.
The reality however is that someone has to pick up the bill at the end of day and that could be the reason why it’s still so limited in most parts of the country. However, if you have a capped account that you pay for at home, the services will also be free to you as there will be no additional costs.
As a country we have made strides and embraced WiFi – if I compare this exact market to about 5 years ago where people didn’t really know what WiFi does, there have been some serious improvements so I’m optimistic about the future of wireless technology solutions locally. Can it be free? Yes – and in other regions it has been demonstrated, but I suspect it will be a while before we get to enjoy those benefits locally.
HS: The delay in the rollout of digital TV and thus, the freeing up of spectrum, is also a big issue in SA right now. What kind of advantages could this spectrum have in this regard, if any?
MF: It’s a completely different frequency, so it's not an advantage or disadvantage for WiFi calling. There has been some traction in TV White Space (TVWS), so that could be useful for underserved areas, and some big companies are backing this quite heavily.
HS: Could we see other mobile networks in the country follow suit?
MF: I don't think so, at least not in the interim. Currently, we have WiFi being offered by carriers at high-density venues such as stadiums and shopping malls for example, where because of the volumes of people, there is practically no cell phone reception. However it’s not in their interests to offer WiFi calling currently.
The carriers have declining voice revenues and for the first time since smartphones were introduced we are starting to see carriers report a decline in total revenue and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDAs), so many of them have turned to data to drive revenue – as this is where the consumer demand is.
It's a tricky place to be because as WiFi gets more pervasive, they will find it more difficult to drive data revenue as a few years back, seamless 3G offload was the silver bullet and that's turned out not to be the case today. Most customers don't care if they have to connect to a hotspot, as long as it works seamlessly and is free or at least a cheaper alternative. WiFi is truly becoming a complementary medium to the carriers.