Feature Article

January 16, 2013

Broadband HD Voice Muddles Onward

All the current HD voice excitement can be found in mobile. Overseas, there are over 40 countries and over 50 networks that have rolled out HD voice services. T-Mobile USA has announced it is introducing HD voice on its network and every smartphone you buy these days -- yes, even the Apple iPhone 5 -- supports the feature. Broadband HD voice service is, to be charitable, muddling along and it remains to be seen if improvements in mobile voice will spur innovation in the wireline world.

I spoke with a number of companies with a stake in the broadband HD voice arena, and all of them seemed a bit frustrated on how HD voice can get rolling as a consumer service in the U.S. One conservation ended up with a "chicken and egg" discussion about how people can't be convinced to buy HD voice service if there's nobody to talk to in HD voice. And, of course, nobody wants to actually -- ahem -- spend money on explaining HD voice in directed marketing, but they're perfectly happy to sell new products incorporating the service.

My response to chicken/egg was twofold, based upon what is happening in the mobile world. First, as with any new product, you're going to have early adapters who get (easily installed) HD voice in their household as the next big thing and they'll start dragging in their friends and family. That leads to word-of-mouth and other people getting the service because so-and-so has it and loves it and you end up with critical mass. 

Longer-term, you'll end up with equipment age-out, with new HD voice-capable handsets being purchased/supplied to an IP-based system because the old ones need replaced, but that's not going to happen overnight.

If you believe in the "mobile pull" principle, the cable industry might start moving forward on consumer broadband HD voice so they can offer voice quality equal to what T-Mobile and other wireless carriers are going to bring over the next two years.   Cable got all app-happy when tablets arrived, so it wouldn't surprise me to see a match on higher voice quality as a defensive move.

One area that business and consumer IP phone manufacturers alike can help themselves is in building a higher audio quality handset, both in terms of design aesthetics and for better in-set voice processing. 

Most smartphones have two mics for noise cancellation and beam-forming while the iPhone 5 has three.   Building a next-generation handset capable of supporting a quality hands-free speakerphone experience, Fraunhofer's AAC codec, and with colors and designs that (figuratively) break the mold of the stock black/white/grey experience isn't an off-the-cuff challenge. On the other hand, the first company to do so will be able to break away from the rest of the pack on something more than a simple price point and reliability reputation.

At ITEXPO East 2013, I will be moderating "Audio Quality in VoIP: Quo Vadis?," on January 30, at noon.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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