According to the American carriers, 5G has really arrived. We did it! We won the race to 5G. But there is one piece of the puzzle that is still largely missing: voice. Phone calls still rely primarily on LTE networks, even where 5G data coverage is robust. Today, T-Mobile announces it has taken a small step forward in realizing voice over 5G. In Portland, Oregon and Salt Lake City, Utah, some commercial calls will be routed over T-Mobile’s standalone 5G network.
Voice over 5G (referred to as Voice over New Radio or VoNR) is a major challenge for the entire wireless industry, although all US carriers will probably want to transition voice calls to 5G at some point in the future to free up LTE spectrum for 5G. Voice calls over 5G also have lower latency, so there are real benefits for customers as well.
However, not every provider is in a hurry to make calls over 5G. Heavy wireless noticed last year that T-Mobile was in charge as part of its effort to be seen as the leader in 5G. Verizon and AT&T, on the other hand, seem content at this point to continue using LTE for calls as they continue to build their 5G networks. As it should be, T-Mobile has made a habit of loudly touting its 5G firsts, including the first voice call over a standalone 5G network with LTE as a fallback in 2020.
VoNR is also something Dish is working to find out as it builds a 5G network from scratch, and it could be a bottleneck in its ability to comply with the FCC’s requirements under the Sprint merger agreement. It doesn’t have its own LTE network to fall back on while it sorts out VoNR, and analysts say carrier is struggling to enable smooth transfers between voice calls on 5G and the LTE networks it uses as roaming partners. If it meets the FCC requirement to cover 20 percent of the population by the end of the month, it will likely be with data only — not voice — on its own network.
In the meantime, you’ll probably struggle to see a 5G voice call happening in the wild, even if you’re a T-Mobile subscriber in Portland or Salt Lake City. At the moment, the technology only works with the Samsung Galaxy S21 and is available in “limited areas” of those cities.
Correction June 3, 3:45 PM ET: An earlier version of this story indicated that T-Mobile announced its first VoNR call with LTE as the fallback last month; the company made this announcement in 2020. We regret the mistake.