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Isn’t It Time HD Voice Was Standard?

For my money, the single biggest advance we’ve seen from VoIP and unified communications is better-quality voice provided through high-definition (HD) or wideband voice. I realize the UC guys also provided convenience features like one click to call/video/text/email, but since they copied most of those ideas from smartphones they don’t score too high on the innovation scale.
 
HD voice, on the other hand, is pure pleasure. Whether on a phone call or in an audio or a video conference, the ability to hear someone clearly changes the whole communications experience -- we’re in the communications business, after all. I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to product pitches for all manner of capabilities, and to my amazement, I hear almost no one talking about liberating us from the cramped, noisy drudgery of listening to someone drone on over a miserable 3-kilohertz phone connection.
 
I expect that most of us in the field can now recognize HD audio as soon as we hear it. However, even the most audio inept can recognize that one schlub on the conference call who dialed in on the phone. I don’t care what he has to say, he’s too hard to listen to!
 
For the uninitiated, HD voice describes an audio connection (telephone call, audio conference connection, or audio accompanying video) using a codec that captures around 7 kHz of the speaker’s audio signal as opposed to the 3-kHz codecs that were baked into the design of the traditional telephone network. That increased bandwidth (that is “bandwidth” in its original meaning: “the range of frequencies carried on the channel”) translates into vastly improved sound quality.
 
HD means communications, particularly those involving the hearing impaired or speakers of different native languages, is far easier to understand. If you’re looking for business impact, you don’t need a major research project to tell you that understanding will translate into better, and more productive communications, and a vastly improved user experience.
 
I’m a musician, so maybe I’m a little more sensitive to sound quality than the average Joe. By the same token, I can never see any significance difference among computer displays, so don’t ask me about those. Audio is my thing, and frankly I can’t believe people don’t hear differences that are this pronounced. If they can’t, there really is a bright future in audiology.
 
The technology to deliver on this goal is readily available, but what’s lacking is vision, will, and industry cooperation to get it accomplished. To break down the problem, the essential components for an HD voice system are:
 
  • HD-compatible audio components in the endpoints -- Speakers and microphones in the endpoints have to be able to capture the higher frequencies, and IP desk and conference phone vendors have all brought their components up to snuff.
  • Compatible HD codecs at each end -- It would be great if all industry segments adopted the same HD coding format, but we don’t have the Bell System any longer so that’s unlikely to happen. However, for decades we’ve had digital transcoders that convert between various digital voice codings, so I can’t imagine that is a major impediment.
  • A signaling system that allows the codec, bit rate, and QoS requirement for the connection to be negotiated as part of the call set-up -- SIP provides all of that in the Session Description Protocol, so the failure to deploy it is clearly one of execution on the part of the carriers and endpoint providers.
  • A flexible (as opposed to one-size-fits-all) transport service that provides a connection with the required transmission rate and QoS parameters for the particular service being delivered -- for intracompany, intersite communications, we initially looked at MPLS and like services that could prioritize certain classes of service to ensure performance. As the Internet continues to develop, we’re clearly finding that even basic “best effort” Internet services (like we now routinely use to support our remote users) can support good-quality voice through brute force, or simply by increasing the network capacity to the point where any differences in delay or jitter become insignificant. We also refer to that solution as: “Bury your problem in bits.”

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