Will High-Def Voice Revive VoIP?

Typically seen as merely a cheap alternative to the PSTN, VoIP is capable of many innovative improvements—including better sound.

By Ed Sutherland | Posted Jun 1, 2009
Print ArticleEmail Article
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on LinkedIn

Voice-over-IP needs an extreme makeover, according to participants at the recent HD Communications Summit. VoIP, known mainly for just one benefit—cheap minutes—must develop a new high-definition identity, says the co-founder of Vonage.

Jeff Pulver, who helped create one of the earliest and best-known VoIP services—Free World Dialup—is the force behind a movement to reshape VoIP, marked by the New York gathering of handset makers and others promoting high-definition voice. Like digital photography, HD DVDs, and digital TV, backers hope high-def VoIP will re-invigorate the market for IP calling.

Beyond a rallying cry for high-definition communications, the get-together outlined two paths for keeping revenue and interest focused on VoIP: discovering a new selling point and adopting the cell-phone model where new services prompt continual hardware refresh.

The convention also spawned the HD Connect marketing effort and a goal to lobby the FCC, similar to the push for new digital TV rules. Both actions stem from VoIP’s image as a "cheaper minutes" alternative to conventional phone service.

High-Def VoIP: technically speaking
To understand the push for high-definition VoIP, you need to understand the technical story behind how VoIP calls work. Although a VoIP call may originate or terminate at an IP-enabled connection, most calls traverse the traditional telephone network. Although the frequency range of a human voice can span 30 to 13000Hz, the typical PTSN network permits only 300 to 3300Hz—a narrower frequency band than an AM radio broadcast. This discrepancy commonly results in clipped speech that might not be noticed if you only used traditional telephony.

High-definition voice would expand the range of detected speech, covering 40 to 7000Hz, resulting in transmissions with more natural voice inflections. The difference between VoIP and PSTN voice quality often prompts a Skype effect, where users question why calls routed through Skype are of higher quality than other VoIP communications. The reason: Skype has always employed wideband voice codecs; it is currently using SILK, a codec it developed.

Cheap minutes a costly mistake?
"We need to turn the corner and stop talking about cheap minutes," said Daniel Berninger. Berninger heads HD Connect, the marketing effort slated to officially launch June 30. Berninger is current CEO of Free World Dialup, Pulver’s free VoIP service. Why the emphasis on cheap minutes?

"Same reason people rob banks—that is where they keep the money," Berninger told Enterprise VoIPplanet by e-mail. However, that emphasis on cheap minutes, has kept VoIP flat-footed, essentially unchanged since 1995.

That change could first appear in the enterprise, where businesses initially attracted to VoIP for cost-savings are looking beyond cheap calls.

"Originally, cost was the number one reason businesses moved to VoIP, with features and functionality becoming a distant second and third," IDC analyst Rebecca Swensen told VoIPplanet.com. Now, "features and functionality are running a tight race with costs for first place," she said.

Business may gain most from HD VoIP
Although consumers are a target audience for high-definition VoIP, the business sector may be the earliest adopters of the new technology, with the most to benefit. The areas which could be helped by better quality VoIP calls includes sales and voice conferences, according to a recent survey. Fifth-seven percent of people said conference calls would benefit most, while 32.8 percent thought video-conferencing would benefit most from HD voice, according to Global IP Solutions. GIS sponsored the HD Communications Summit.

"If the quality of the voice is not ideal, it makes doing business frustrating at the very least, and at times quite difficult," adds IDC’s Swensen.

Although call centers could benefit from HD voice, to provide the full experience customers without HD phones could use softphones with HD codecs . Not surprisingly, the handset industry is one of the most vocal proponents of HD VoIP.

Handsets go HD
In recent weeks, there has been a crush of announcements of enterprise phones adopting HD features. Polycom, maker of enterprise-ready speakerphones, announced in May the VVX 1500C, an HD Voice handset certified with Cisco’s Unified Communications Manager. Cisco also updated its SPA525G IP phone with a HD voice codec.

Other companies are exploring softphones, enabling HD VoIP without a physical HD phone. Possibly gaining most attention was Skype, offering royalty-free access to SILK, its HD voice codec.

Can HD "refresh" the VoIP market?
The introduction of new handsets and codecs mirrors what Pulver says could mean "billions" in a few years, as businesses and consumers buy new handsets and software much the way we buy a new cell phone every 90 days to stay current with the latest services.

And in the early adoption of HD VoIP, businesses could lead the pack toward a VoIP refresh.

"I gather the business market is much more likely to completely overhaul their phones for HD than the consumer market," said Swensen.

Buying new hardware could also help the telecom industry living on the knife-edge of razor-thin profits due to VoIP. "Interest in HD means refresh of telecom Infrastructure," Berninger told Enterprise VoIP Planet.

Telecom’s new rival: Twitter?
The final piece of the HD VoIP puzzle has yet been put in place. While France Telecom’s Orange and other European carriers have pledged to adopt HD Voice later this year, still silent are U.S. carriers. However, they may be pushed toward HD voice by an unlikely competitor: Twitter.

"What will trigger HD deployment?—competition between voice vendors and with non-voice apps like e-mail and Twitter," according to Berninger.

Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.
Get the Latest Scoop with Enterprise Networking Planet Newsletter