If you can't beat 'em ...
Interestingly, despite all the talk about HD voice and VoIP, there's some disagreement over just how much pressure operators are under to take voice high-def.
Lee, for one, says cellcos feel more pressured by VoIP players on things like IDD tariffs rather than voice quality.
"They don't see it as anything urgent, because the value for mobile networks still comes from mobility, and as long as customers still enjoy that mobility, mobile operators still have an advantage," he says. "Also, they still face the same challenges now as they have in the past. So when the competition comes up from other mobile operators, they'll move more quickly to deploy AMR-WB."
Machi of Dialogic, however, credits increased usage of VoIP for resetting customer expectations for voice call quality.
"In the enterprise, using the latest equipment from Avaya or Microsoft or Cisco, you can get HD voice, and Skype also uses an HD voice codec," he points out. "So people have been exposed to HD voice and know how much better it sounds."
Either way, it's going to take time for HD voice to catch on in the cellco world - but when it does, it's going to ramp up fast, according to ABI Research. An April report says serious growth for mobile HD voice won't kick in until at least 2013, but usage of HD-enabled handsets will skyrocket to 487 million subscribers by 2015.
That growth could be even faster for cellcos that are prepared to embrace VoIP for themselves, says Kravchenko.
"In the mobile space, it's probably easier to move to HD voice by enabling VoIP," he says. "Instead of enabling wideband voice on the traditional circuit-switched network, you can use a VoIP software app on the data network and offer it that way. It's a way to get people to try HD voice without the expense of changing the terminals or the base stations."
Spirit's VoIP expert for Asia Slava Borilin adds that using VoIP as an HD enabler also makes the interoperability problem simpler to address.
"There are about five or six software codecs that you'll typically come across in VoIP, and it's not as difficult to get them to interoperate," he says.
The trick there, of course, is convincing cellcos to embrace VoIP in the first place. Most operators have resisted VoIP out fears of cannibalism of existing voice or data capacity issues, and many still block usage of VoIP over their 3G networks (although Wi-Fi usage is usually still allowed). But migration to all-IP LTE could mitigate the capacity concerns, says Kravchenko.
Meanwhile, Skype has been maintaining its charm offensive with cellcos, pitching a November 2009 case study by CCS Insight showing that 3 UK's partnership with Skype has not only lowered churn, but also boosted traditional voice and SMS usage rather than cannibalize it.
To date, only Verizon has taken Skype up on its offer to follow in 3 UK's foodsteps. But the idea does seem to be catching on elsewhere. In July, Korean operator SK Telecom announced that it would include mobile VoIP as part of a broader updated mobile broadband strategy that includes unlimited data plans and an accelerated LTE rollout timetable.