VoIP pushes industry to HD voice

John C. Tanner
Telecom Asia

Handsets, expense, coverage

The chief factors holding up HD voice for operators boils down to a few key themes: handsets, expense and coverage.

The problem with handsets, says Ericsson CTO Michael Lee, is simple: mobile phones have to support AMR-WB for HD voice to work, and at the moment, few do.

"We haven't seen a lot of support from the handset market to accommodate AMR-WB," Lee says. "But to be fair, it's also a chicken-and-egg problem. If there are few operators interested in AMR-WB, why should handset suppliers support it?"

Another issue is network investment, says Lee. "Today operators deploy transcoders in every switching site of the network, so that the 16-kbps codec I use between the mobile and the base station can convert into a 64-kbps connection to adjust for the traditional circuit-switched PCM-based voice codec," he explains. "If you want to do AMR-WB, you have to take those transcoders away and introduce new functionality at the gateway of the architecture that handles transcoder-free operation. All this means you have to make some investment in the network."

This factor has given VoIP players the edge over traditional operators in HD voice, says Alexander Kravchenko, marketing director for voice/video engine specialists Spirit DSP.

"Using HD voice with something like Skype doesn't bring any additional cost to the service provider because the software is free," he says. "For carriers, the situation is quite different because you have to install a lot of equipment."

This isn't necessarily the case for everyone, says ABI Research principal analyst Fritz Jordan. "Newer 3G networks - those deployed since about 2005 and 2006 - can already use the new format and require only a software update and a changeover to HD handsets," Jordan said in a research note. "That's why HD voice, unlike most technologies, will first find traction in developing markets," while markets with older 3G networks will have to upgrade their networks.

However, that raises another key problem - HD voice has to be supported on both ends of the call, otherwise it drops to the default narrowband codec. And islands of HD voice support inevitably mean inconsistent service, says Lee.

"What that means for the end-user's point of view is that sometimes you get high-quality voice and sometimes you get standard-quality, depending on whether you call someone on another network that doesn't support HD voice, including a fixed-line phone, or someone whose handset isn't HD-enabled," Lee says. "It can even be an issue in cases where the operator has deployed HD voice for its 3G network but not its 2G network to cut costs."

That's tricky for operators, he adds, because once users try HD voice, the lower quality of narrowband becomes much more noticeable. "Once they try the high-quality, they notice when it's lower quality and they think it sounds bad, even though it was what they were used to in the past."

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