Time to talk up HD voice

First published on Mobile World Live, 18 March 2013

There are signs that high-definition voice, at long last, is gaining momentum. According to some reports, over 60 networks are now supporting W-AMR (wideband-adaptive multi rate) technology for HD voice. More than 160 different handset models – from 16 suppliers – are HD-voice ready. The old chicken-and-egg stumbling block about which should come first – network or devices – looks to be coming down.

The arguments for HD voice seem compelling. By using wideband codecs, as well as noise cancellation techniques, operators can offer a differentiated service. It’s a no-brainer that mobile customers, given the chance, would prefer not to have their conversations drowned out by background noise. There are plenty of online demos, too, showing that the claim of HD voice enthusiasts – of being able speak to people ‘as if they were in the same room’ – is not unfounded.

Why, then, has it taken so long to get HD voice up and running? After all, the technology that enables it has been around for some time. And despite growing HD voice adoption, it’s still far from widespread.

Codec licensing fees, along with the trouble it takes to reconfigure the network, might be factors. Yet the HD voice proponents that I’ve spoken to, perhaps not surprisingly, play down those obstacles. They typically point to easy software upgrades.

Perhaps then it’s the freeing up of extra bandwidth for wideband speech – particularly if capacity is scarce – that’s putting the brakes on HD voice? It shouldn’t be, says one supplier of voice processors. The use of noise cancellation techniques means the network does not have to carry background noise, which mitigates the capacity-chewing impact of those wideband codecs. And anyway, so this argument goes, voice traffic takes up only a small proportion of overall capacity compared with data. Increases in bandwidth allocation to voice will have a minimal impact overall on the network.

True, lack of network interoperability is becoming less of a problem. Internet Packet Exchanges (IPXs) are helping in that regard, which can also allow HD calls between fixed and mobile networks. France Telecom-owned Orange and BT are both carrying HD voice calls over their IPXs.

The GSMA is doing useful work, too, rallying operators and vendors around a single ‘HD Voice’ logo that indicates minimum technical requirements have been met. That should give customers more confidence about what they can expect from logo-carrying devices and networks.

But for all the progress on interoperability (and suppliers’ calming of operator nerves), there are clearly many operators still not convinced about the business case. Not all, however. Orange, unusually aggressive on HD voice, has been willing to take the plunge and now offers the service in 17 markets. It wants to become synonymous with HD voice and gain first-to-market advantage. But it’s better for Orange if more operators (and device manufacturers) offer the service, because then it’s more likely an HD voice subscriber can call another. HD-to-HD offers a much better call experience than HD-to-non-HD. And that, says Orange, will boost voice call usage.

Orange, tracking thousands of customers for more than a year, found those who upgraded from a non-HD voice handset to an HD voice device increased their call usage by more than 3 per cent compared with those upgrading to another non-HD device. And the overwhelming majority of these calls will have been HD to non-HD. Orange expects that as the number of HD-to-HD calls grow, voice usage will get an even bigger boost.

Increased usage, of course, does not necessarily translate into incremental revenue, especially with ever more generous buckets of minutes handed being out by operators at lower prices. There could well be a business case built on increased usage – I’ve heard one operator say they can get a payback on their HD voice investment between 3-5 years on increased usage alone – but it seems to me that building a stronger business case for HD voice will revolve around customer retention arguments. If suppliers (and operators already committed to HD Voice) can make a convincing case that HD voice is an important differentiator from OTT players – even in the high-bandwidth world of LTE – then the HD Voice logo will spread far and wide at a rapid clip.

Let’s see what happens this year.

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