It has been ten years since Steve Jobs launched the iPhone, a decade in which his “widescreen iPod, mobile phone and Internet communications device” completely changed the way that people communicate, access information, and consume media. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, but it made accessing data services so easy that people didn’t really think about the fact that six months before, most could only access the Internet on a desktop.
Little wonder, then, that as demand for smartphones grew, so did the pressure on standards bodies, equipment makers and cellular operators to provide more bandwidth for data – lots more bandwidth. The ultimate expression of this to date has been the introduction of Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks, sold to consumers as faster 4G data connections for their mobiles. The old‑fashioned business of making calls was relegated to hardware that could access ‘legacy’ 2G and 3G networks.
This was fine until operators realized they could end up supporting legacy networks forever with all the attendant direct and indirect costs, unless they found a way to carry conversations over LTE networks. The result was the Voice over LTE (VoLTE) standard, which is currently being implemented by leading 4G operators.
The availability of VoLTE is awakening developers to the fact that their IoT designs need no longer be limited to data gathering. Rather, they could offer more value by incorporating voice as well - at little extra cost. And that is spurring interesting ideas about implementing voice in IoT products and services.
But first – what’s the use of talking? I mean, literally. Well, it’s the most sophisticated, nuanced and expressive way of communicating that humankind has developed to date. It’s easy to do when occupied with other things, such as working with your hands or watching the road while driving. It can be used for passing basic information for transmitting enormous amounts of meaning over a relatively low‑bandwidth channel. With the rise of voice recognition and assistants such as Siri and Cortana, talking is also becoming an increasingly effective way of interfacing with machines.
Voice support, or VoLTE, therefore opens up all sorts of opportunities to enhance IoT products and services.
What other design options does voice bring? Well, you could use a call center or even voice‑recognition services, hosted centrally, to reshape the user interfaces of IoT devices that are rarely accessed by people. For example, rather than including a costly touchscreen on a building control system, why not use a voice channel to ask someone (or something) to adjust its controls for you? VoLTE also enables simultaneous voice and data connections, which could be useful in roadside assistance systems or medical alert devices, where users could talk to an operator even as data about their situation was being uploaded to a response center.
Implementing VoLTE can be pretty straightforward. Many companies use one of u‑blox’s 2G, 3G or 4G modules to implement wireless Internet connections for their IoT designs. The introduction of the TOBY‑R202 and TOBY‑R200 VoLTE products make it simple to upgrade existing designs with simultaneous voice and data support, because they offer the same mechanical specs as many of those modules. Critical firmware updates, including security patches and system and driver updates, can be handled over the air via FOTA (firmware‑over‑the‑air).
The TOBY‑R202 and R200 LTE Cat 1 modules have already been certified to offer VoLTE support over the AT&T network. Both work on LTE bands 2, 4, 5 and 12, and also support voice over 2G and/or 3G networks as a fallback, with the TOBY‑R202 providing fallback on 3G bands 2 and 5, and the TOBY‑R200 providing global 2G and 3G fallback.
The launch of the iPhone showed that thoughtful integration of several forms of interaction and communication could radically change our perceptions of what a device could do. Bringing voice facilities to the IoT developer’s toolkit may offer a similar opportunity to rethink entire categories of connected products and services.