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Can We Stop Calling it a Smartphone Now?

Dan Paquette

2 min read

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Ever since the rise of the cell phone, the devices we carry in our pockets are increasingly more capable.  Devices that were capable of text messaging were followed by others that had embedded browsers and could access and render basic websites on the internet.  Once the iPhone and Android-based phones became available 7 years years ago, we have come to expect these devices to deliver a dizzying breadth of information to our fingertips.

But we still call that device in our pockets a smart*phone*.  To users, this is a somewhat obvious distinction.  On an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S5, I can pick the device up, dial a phone number and call someone.  I cannot do these things on an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy Tab.  Not only would it not work to physically hold such a large device to my head, but the device is lacking a key component to making a telephone call – the right antenna.

Currently, modern cell phones have multiple antennas that can access the carrier’s data network – 2G, 3G, 4G LTE – each providing higher bandwidth connectivity to the cellular network and either CDMA or GSM antennas for making phone calls.  Tablets may or may not have the LTE-based data antenna, but they do not have the antenna for making phone calls as the networks currently expect.

But there’s a change happening. 

Carriers want to drop support for the aging cellular networks.  They’re expensive to maintain and consumer interest in cellular phone calls is minimal.  We judge our mobile carriers by 3 criteria:  How strong is my data network connectivity, how fast is the data and how much data can I use?  Telephony is an afterthought – even for a smartphone.

In an effort to simplify their offerings and move away from some these 10+ year old technologies, carriers are making the antenna used for voice calls obsolete.  A new technology that leverages the existing LTE network has been created and is about to be rolled out by several major carriers in large cities.

Voice over LTE (VoLTE) routes cellular phone calls over the established LTE network in much the same way that Voice over IP (VoIP) uses an existing IP network to establish telephone calls in homes and offices.  Any device with a LTE antenna – including cellular-enabled tablets – would become able to start and receive standard phone calls.  You may already use similar technology when using Microsoft Lync or Google Hangouts on your smartphone.  There will always be considerations on taking calls while on mobile networks, but the vast amount investment in LTE networks have yielded higher capacity, lower latency and made them more reliable than any preceding mobile network technology.  These qualities will allow the infrastructure to be used to carry voice traffic just like any other data on the network.

Many of us carry two mobile computing devices – a smartphone and a tablet.  If you could consolidate the two devices into one with better battery life – fewer antennas will yield a lower power draw – and the ability to access internet- or cloud-based data while talking on the phone, would you really need a dedicated phone device any more?