Last year, when Bharti Airtel tried to block voice calling apps, everyone thought it was aimed at WhatsApp. But as it turns out, the move could also have been aimed at a new feature from Reliance Jio that ensures that you can make calls using RJio’s phone number using rivals’ networks.
The Mukesh Ambani-owned telecom service will come with a unique app called Jio Join that reroutes calls using the phone’s data network.
Though it may sound like WhatsApp calling, it’s not the same. In WhatsApp calling both parties have to have strong data connectivity for a decent call to take place. If one of them doesn’t have a strong data connection, the quality of the call will suffer, and this has prevented the emergence of WhatsApp calling as a big rival to operators’ voice calls.
In case of Jio, only the caller needs to have a strong data network as the receiver gets the call on the cellular (2G or 3G) network.
Though it is a technology that WhatsApp too could have used, the laws in India prevent app-makers from connecting their calls to the mobile or landline networks. To interconnect with other mobile and landline networks, app makers have to get a telecom license.
Jio, in addition to being an app-maker, also has a telecom license which permits it to provide ‘access services’ using any technology.
This allows Reliance Jio to let its subscribers make calls to other mobile and land phones using VoLTE (which is almost the same as VoIP), and of course VoIP (app).
VoLTE uses packet switched technology (the same one that powers the Internet) to carry voice data, just like it is used to carry Youtube videos on the Internet. Meanwhile, 2G and 3G carriers use a more traditional, time-reserved technology called circuit switched voice.
The term ‘circuit switched’ refers to the fact that an entire circuit is reserved for a conversation unlike in Internet Protocol where no reservation is made and capacity is allocated if and when it is available.
Now, we come to VoIP, which is very very similar to VoLTE.
The main difference between VoIP and VoLTE is that the latter users much smaller packet headers, which saves substantial amounts of bandwidth. Otherwise, both are very very similar.
According to initial indications, Reliance Jio intends to use both VoLTE and VoIP.
VoLTE will be used in cases where the subscriber is on a VoLTE-enabled phone, and is also present on Reliance Jio’s network.
If either of the two conditions fail — that is, the subscriber is using a non-VoLTE phone or is not on Jio’s network — the call can be routed through his or her data connection through the Jio Join app. This applies to incoming calls and SMS also, which means that you are never ‘out of range’ as long as you are connected to the WiFi.
This data connection can be his office WiFi network, home WiFi or a 3G or 4G connection from a rival operator like Bharti Airtel or Idea Cellular. So, in effect, a Jio subscriber should be able to use his phone number even away from the Jio network.
One thing to note is that such calls won’t be ‘free’ like in case of WhatsApp, especially if the called person is on a non-Jio network. This is because, in such cases, the originating operator (RJio) has to pay 14 paise per minute to the network (Airtel, Idea etc) on which the called party is receiving the call.
However, given that regular call rates in India are usually 50 paise or above, subscribers may choose to make such calls and pay 14-20 paise per minute instead of using the normal call function.
On the other hand, if the receiver too has installed the Jio Join app and also has a strong data connection, then the entire call can be made ‘free’ as well.
So, even if a person has a non-VoLTE phone, he can connect the phone to a Jio MiFi device and use his app to make voice calls using Jio’s network.
The big question in all this will be call quality, which has so far prevented VoIP from taking off in India.
But it may not be such a stumbling block since it will depend entirely on the quality of the Internet connection at the caller’s end, and not on the receivers’ end.
Of course, other operators may also try to copy Jio’s strategy and bring out their own versions of such apps. However, if more and more calls start happening through apps, the biggest losers will be the incumbent operators, and not Jio.