VoIP players are setting new standards in voice quality with HD codecs. Cellcos have had their own HD voice standards for years, but challenges abound, and the simpler solution could be to embrace VoIP for themselves
Television channels aren't the only things going "high-definition" (HD) these days. Even voice calls - the traditional cash cow of the telecom sector - are moving into HD territory, particularly in the mobile sector. HD voice promises to make callers sound like they're practically in the same room. And it's been generating considerable buzz in the past six months.
Several HD voice solutions were on show at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. And cellcos in the UK have been demonstrating HD voice, including 3 UK and Orange, the latter of which launched trials of HD voice in several cities with plans for a nationwide rollout. Orange also has HD voice trials ongoing in Eastern and Western Europe.
However, for the most part it's not the traditional cellcos that are turning users onto HD voice, but upstart VoIP players - which is ironic, not least because VoIP call quality is typically portrayed as a matter of low latency. Anyone who has used Skype or similar VoIP apps knows when the call is having latency issues. However, they also know that in terms of actual voice fidelity, VoIP codecs are way ahead of the game.
Skype executives know it too and have been going out of their way to tout the value of HD voice. At the Emerging Communication Conference America earlier this year, Skype chief technology strategist Jonathan Rosenberg included a slide showing that as his company's own SILK codec has improved in audio quality, the frequency and duration of voice calls go up.
Rosenberg said that HD voice quality can increase the length of a voice call 45% (see chart, page 20). Little wonder that Skype's latest iPhone client, which allows Skype calls over 3G networks rather than just Wi-Fi for the first time, boasts "CD quality" voice capabilities.
Meanwhile, Google clearly sees value in HD voice. In May this year, it paid $68.2 million in cash for Norwegian company Global IP Solutions (GIPS), which specializes in VoIP and video processing platforms. Industry observers have speculated that Google could put GIPS' HD voice engines to work to enable an HD version of Google Voice for its Android OS.
What's even more ironic about VoIP's lead in HD voice is that circuit-switched HD codec standards have been around for years. The mobile version, Adaptive Multi Rate Wideband (AMR-WB), has been an ITU standard (G.722.2) for close to a decade, as has the fixed-line version (G.722), and solutions have been commercially available since at least 2006. But deployment has been held up by a number of factors, from cost of deployment to sheer lack of incentive. After all, customers have been using standard voice codecs for ages - they're used to it, and as long as they can understand the person on the other end, why fix what ain't broke?
But that's becoming less and less the case as VoIP - which claims over 900 million users, according to ABI Research - increasingly sets expectations on what voice calls ought to sound like. The trick is that the challenges that have delayed HD voice for so long for operators remain in place - so much so that (and this may be the biggest irony of all) the answer may be to embrace VoIP for themselves.