T-Mobile’s President of Technology Neville Ray says the operator is working on Voice over New Radio (VoNR) so that its 5G network will be able to handle voice calls as well as data.
It’s doubtful whether most consumers realize that even if they have a 5G smartphone, and they see the 5G icon on their phone, their voice calls still operate on carriers’ LTE networks.
Speaking with Fierce, Ray said the process of delivering data first and then following with voice is how the industry has historically handled the next generation of wireless technology. “It’s the same as what happened with LTE,” said Ray. “With LTE we rolled out data first, then later VoLTE.”
He said VoLTE was “tough sledding” to begin because it involved a big transition from circuit-switched voice to IP-based voice.
VoNR won’t be quite as difficult. Ray said, “To have a good, strong reliable voice service on 5G you need a big, strong 5G footprint.” It’s important to work out any kinks because once a call is set up on 5G it’s undesirable for it to get bumped down to LTE. “Every time those changes happen you can have potential problems,” he said.
T-Mobile is now doing a lot of testing on VoNR. “We’ve been driving very hard with the vendor community,” he said. “We’re getting close, but we’re not ready. We don’t yet see the quality in software and vendor products.”
Smartphones and other devices that can support VoNR are expected in 2022.
T-Mobile rolls out “5G UC” icon on phones
People who have a T-Mobile plan may have noticed a new “5G UC” icon on their phones. T-Mobile first launched the icon September 14 when the new iPhone 13 was unveiled. The “UC” stands for T-Mobile’s Ultra Capacity network, which Ray said refers to its mid-band spectrum.
T-Mobile says that it now covers 186 million people in the U.S. with its Ultra Capacity network. “We’re delivering a 5G experience with that mid-band,” said Ray. “We’ll have almost 200 million people with Ultra Capacity by the end of this year.” Most of the company’s mid-band spectrum is “metro-driven” at this point.
He said according to a new Opensignal report, T-Mobile’s Ultra Capacity network is delivering speeds as high as 239 Mbps.
When customers are not on the Ultra Capacity network, their phones will show a plain old “5G” icon. This indicates they’re on T-Mobile’s low-band spectrum. Ray said there are now 308 million people, including Puerto Rico, covered by this base layer of low band 600 MHz spectrum. “The U.S. population is about 325 million, so we’re almost covering everybody with 600 MHz,” he said.
Why, just why?
So, T-Mobile has “5G UC,” Verizon has “5G UWB,” which stands for Ultra Wideband, and AT&T just recently announced a “5G+” icon when the service is running on its mmWave spectrum.
Why are carriers slamming consumers with all these icons when most customers don’t know or care about which spectrum their service runs on?
Ray said, “It is somewhat confusing. This all started with AT&T with the 5G E icon.” He was referring to AT&T’s decision a couple of years ago to show an icon that denoted when the service was running on AT&T’s advanced LTE network – a 5G Evolution.
Of AT&T’s 5G+ icon, Ray quipped, “If you compare what we’re doing in mid-band, it’s like 5G minus, to be honest.” He said T-Mobile has 186 million people on its mid-band spectrum, while he claims AT&T has only about 5 million people on its mmWave spectrum.
For its part, T-Mobile is also rolling out 5G on some mmWave spectrum. “We are deploying some mmWave in venues, arenas, places like that,” said Ray.