Neutral Tandem: Helping to grow the HD cloud

This major global provider of IP interconnection services offers end-to-end wideband voice support to all its customers.

By Ted Stevenson | Posted Sep 14, 2011
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High-definition (HD) voice technology—also known as wideband—has been around for four or five years now, and everyone agrees that it is a big improvement over traditional TDM telephony.

But there's been a persistent problem with HD voice service: It has, for the most part, existed only in isolated "islands"—individual networks that forward-looking providers have HD enabled.

Until now, the industry has only nibbled at the edge of this problem, leaving a big gap between present HD reality and the notion of universal HD availability.

To the extent the problem has been addressed, it's been by organizations banding together in one way or another and interconnecting their HD-capable networks—sort of a members-only approach.

Enterprise VoIPplanet recently had an opportunity to speak with Neutral Tandem, a global provider of wholesale IP interconnection services that recently announced its own program to enable wideband voice interconnection. And it is doing this in a way that seems (to us, anyway) likely to get us to that goal of universal HD availability sooner rather than later.

According to Neutral Tandem's senior director of new product development, John Butz, the prevailing architectural or implementation model for HD interconnections is based on ENUM (def) services, where the information as to whether a given phone number is wideband equipped (along with lots of other information) is stored in a massive directory or database.

"There are some advantages to ENUM from an efficiency standpoint, meaning you can find out right away whether a phone is wideband enabled or not and route the call," Butz told VoIPplanet. "But there are substantial down sides as well."

For one thing ENUM tables have to be constantly updated as providers bring more HD endpoints on line. "There are costs associated with that, and there's a cost with performing the actual [lookup], to see if the phone is wideband enabled," he said. Perhaps more important, many providers don't feel comfortable sharing confidential data about their businesses with third parties.

Neutral Tandem's solution—which Butz stressed, imposes no incremental burdens of cost or process—is simply to make wideband enablement available across its entire (very sizable) customer base on request—as an enhancement to its core service package, not as an extra-cost option.

The process, which the company has dubbed an "endpoint negotiation service," works like this:

"When a carrier connects to Neutral Tandem," Butz explained, "we have a codec profile. One of those codecs can be a wideband codec, then G.711, say, then any other choice of codecs that a customer may wish to signal up to us. If a call is signaled up wideband, we'll honor that wideband codec request all the way to the terminating side.

"If you're already interconnected to us, it's a simple profile change on your SIP trunks to say 'I want to use wideband.' Every time you signal up to us in wideband, we'll do our best to connect it on the far end.

"There are no modifications to any rate tables," Butz continued, "there's no fee to transit wideband on our network. It's a low barrier to entry, and that resonates well with out customers."

This low barrier to entry is the key that promises to accelerate growth of the HD cloud—to make it a viral phenomenon. If it's cost-free and hassle-free, why wouldn't customers sign on? That's Neutral Tandem's thinking.

Enterprise VoIPplanet queried Butz as to how many HD endpoints the company might be supporting. "As a wholesale interconnect provider, we don't have any endpoints—by design," he responded, but to give us some idea, he.resorted to cited some publicly available statistics.

One major customer, for example, claims upwards of 25,000 customers (not endpoints), "and they're pushing wideband pretty hard," he said.

Then there's the CLEC sector. "A typical CLEC might be 5,000 to 15,000 endpoints for wideband," Butz said. "For our customer base, there are upwards of 10 carriers in that category. Typically, they're looking to use wideband as a differentiation point for their hosted VoIP services. I'm in there working to make sure that their customers have access to this growing wideband cloud—and to make sure they're aware that they have this as an option."

But, with the program just announced, the ball is only beginning to roll, as it were. Big growth is waiting in the wings.

Take the mobile market: While U.S. mobile operators aren't doing much wideband now (like those in Europe), as they upgrade their networks to LTE over the next few years, they'll be hot to offer HD. "When the mobile guys are ready to do wideband, we'll be ready for them," Butz said.

"As I interconnect more and more of the carriers in our portfolio, the cloud will continue to grow, and customers will see an increasing number of calls completed in wideband. That would play into this viral phenomenon where more and more people would want to use it."

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