Verizon’s voice-over-LTE service will include Facetime-like video calling at launch

AT&T(s t) may have beat Verizon(s vz) off the starting line when it took its new voice-over-LTE service live this week, but Verizon said on Tuesday it plans to finish the VoLTE race strong. The carrier still hasn’t revealed when in 2014 its next-generation mobile telephony service will launch, but when it does it will debut nationwide and immediately offer enhanced communications features like video calling, Verizon VP of Mobile and Internet services Brian Higgins said at a media briefing.

The video chat feature will be much like Apple’s(s aapl) Facetime as it will be accessible from the phone’s dialer and contact lists and users can switch between voice and video calling with a tap of the button. Verizon started previewing integrated video calling way back in 2011, but it’s significant that the feature will available to customers on day 1 of launch.

Most mobile carriers are gradually rolling out VoLTE features over time. For instance, AT&T’s VoLTE service – which went live in Chicago and Minneapolis on Monday on a single device, the Galaxy S4 mini – will offer HD voice calling, but other features will roll out later.

galaxy s4 mini

The Galaxy S4 mini will be the first device from the major U.S. carriers to support VoLTE, but not the last.

And what other features are we talking about? Stuff like presence notifications in your contact list, one-touch voice conferencing, enhanced IM, multiple phone numbers linked to the same handset, and the ability to switch seamlessly between communications formats. All of these technologies are spelled out in the new Rich Communications Suite (RCS) standard that global carriers are adopting, but not all of them may be available to consumers – at least not for free. Some of the more advanced features may be reserved for carrier’s enterprise customers, who will be the main targets for VoLTE.

For any of these services to work though, both phones have to be VoLTE capable, and that’s an extremely limited number of devices right now. Verizon will have several VoLTE capable devices available at launch, as well as support several devices already in the market with software upgrades, Higgins said. But I would expect them to be limited to newer Android smartphones at first.

Higgins said Verizon is only committing to HD Voice and video calling for launch, though once it brings SMS into it the VoLTE fold it can move its customers entirely off of its older 2G networks and entirely onto the all-IP LTE network. Verizon doesn’t seem to be in any hurry, though. It keeps pushing back it’s VoLTE launch date (we originally expected to see VoLTE in early 2013), and Verizon has become vaguer and vaguer about its timeline.

Verizon's LTE coverage in dark red

Verizon’s LTE coverage in dark red

Verizon’s VoLTE service will only be as good as it’s LTE network. As a CDMA operator, Verizon can’t link its 2G and 4G networks with a technology called single-radio voice call continuity that will allow VoIP conversations on the LTE network to hand themselves over to the 2G network. Unlike AT&T and other GSM operators, Verizon’s VoLTE calls will just drop when they leave LTE coverage. Before Verizon takes VoLTE live it wants to ensure it has enough LTE coverage and capacity, and it’s well on the way there. On Monday it announced its new high-capacity LTE network – which it’s calling XLTE – has gone up in 250 cities.