As Telecom Carriers Roll Out WiFi Calling, Partners Discuss Potential Implications

Business customers are moving away from the tried-and-true desk phone in favor of the more mobile options they use in their consumer lives. And these business users still expect to make and receive calls quickly, without any downtime. As trends in the consumer space creep into companies, solution providers are keeping an eye on services their telecommunications provider partners are starting to offer, like WiFi calling.

Verizon this week joined the ranks of rivals AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile when the carrier got the green light from the Federal Communications Commission to roll out WiFi calling services. WiFi calling allows users to place voice calls through the local Internet network instead of the cellular network.

While WiFi calling could have implications for a carrier's network, repercussions won't be felt by solution providers partnering with telecommunications providers, partners said.

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"I don’t think [WiFi calling] makes a world of difference to us, and I can't imagine it makes much of a difference to other solutions providers out there, either," said Patrick Lee, business development executive for Morristown, N.J.-based Alliant Technologies, a solution provider and AT&T partner.

WiFi calling won't impact monthly recurring residuals on wireless services for the channel because these residuals were never that rich to begin with, solution providers said. And commissions on voice services won't go down just because traffic is traversing the WiFi, said Andrew Pryfogle, senior vice president of cloud transformation for Intelisys, a Petaluma, Calif.-based master agent that partners with many telecommunications providers, including Verizon and AT&T.

Right now, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are offering WiFi calling directly through the native phone call dialing app, allowing a WiFi call to be placed over a wireless network that the user is connected to instead of the carrier's cellular infrastructure. Verizon is adding a separate app for the purpose of WiFi calling. WiFi calling is restricted to specific devices and operating systems, such as the iPhone and Android smartphones. WiFi calling availability by device still varies widely, and depending on the carrier, WiFi calling may or may not impact voice minutes allowance on a user's cellular plan.

Many carriers have been working toward winding down the traditional, public switched telephone network (PSTN) in favor of networks based on Internet Protocol (IP). As a result, cellular and landline calls placed using a provider like AT&T, for example, a carrier that has been aggressive in the IP space, will most likely be traversing the IP network, Lee said.

"At the end of the day, a call may leave your cellphone to a cell tower, or leave your home off of a copper wire, but as soon as it hits a switch, it'll be on the IP network," he said. "WiFi calling might be more a consumer play, … but carriers have already gone that route. It's just now they are trying to extend that out [to] the edges."

The telecom companies aren't the only players in the WiFi calling space. Earlier this year, Google unveiled Project Fi, a service that switches a user's phone service from cellular to WiFi, allowing customers to pay for only the data they use. Cable companies like Comcast have also revealed plans to launch WiFi calling services. During its Q3 2015 earnings call, Comcast said it would be cashing in on its mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) relationship with Verizon to enable its own WiFi calling service, which will rely on Verizon's cellular network.

Carriers are using WiFi calling as a way to offer voice services to their users, even in areas with low or nonexistent signal strength. Additionally, it can reduce the load on a carrier's cellular network while most likely not having a big impact on existing voice plans, as many carriers offer unlimited minutes to customers.

WiFi calling is also helping carriers compete with the likes of Skype, WhatsApp and Google Hangouts, services that allow users to make voice calls with only a WiFi connection. Unlike a carrier's WiFi calling service, these apps typically restrict communications to only other users who have downloaded the app.

While WiFi calling won't impact a solution provider's bottom line, it’s a trend worth paying attention to as businesses are leaning toward mobility solutions, Intelisys' Pryfogle said.

"We are seeing a dramatic increase in businesses going exclusively to wireless phone usage instead of desk phones and we are seeing more deployments of hosted Voice over IP [VoIP] and [Unified Communications as a Service] UCaaS solutions that don’t even have any handsets anymore," he said.