Call it wideband telephony. Call it HD Voice.
I doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s here and it’s here to stay.
But where did wideband telephony first emerge? Where are we really at with HD calling today? And most importantly, what does the future for High Definition calling hold for us?
And with Phone.com’s recent announcement of the first ever Hosted HD voice phone network, I thought who better to talk about the past, present and future of wideband telephony than their EVP and CTO Alon Cohen. And I mean that because Alon’s no slouch.
He co-founder VocalTec and is the inventor of the Audio Transceiver that enabled the creation of Voice Over Networks products and eventually the VoIP industry. Told you he’s no slouch 🙂
Smith: So Alon – when did the promise of wideband codecs first emerge?
AC: When we first started working on Networked Telephony at VocalTec around 1992/3 we realized that different people will have different audio capabilities on their computers. We wanted to ensure that different users would be able to communicate regardless of hardware capabilities they have and without the need to convert or trans-code (translate) one audio format to the other when they can both agree to speak the same “language”.
Later on, as the technology started to make headlines around 1995/6 we invited Cisco to the table so we can define a new standard for telephony. Together we invited a list of companies to sit and define the VoIP standard to come. The base transport protocol was selected to be the IETF RTP protocol which was capable of carrying “payloads” of voice, encoded in different audio formats. At that point the need to negotiate a common set of capabilities and audio qualities between the end-points was established, and became part of the standard.
This negotiation ability is really a key differentiator between standard telephony (the PSTN) and VoIP. This intrinsic capability of VoIP created a versatile platform that can successfully traverse different network capabilities, by selecting the best technology for each call but also enables the VoIP standard to endlessly evolve as new capabilities, voice qualities, computing power and innovation come to be.
We now move to HD Voice which is about the quality of FM radio in comparison to standard phone quality. We can later move to CD quality which will cover all the audible range of the human hearing, and we are not dependent on others doing so. If we hit a standard quality call we use standard quality, if we hit a user with HD capability we take advantage of that go HD. We are not co-dependent and hardwired as the old PSTN networks are.
Smith: And now that the era of HD voice is upon us, what do you feel is the true potential of wideband calling?
AC: You probably noticed that when you answer an e-mail you say different things than when you speak to someone on the phone. The intimacy of hearing someone changes the dynamics of the call usually diffusing conflicts and frustrations much faster.
The same process takes place when moving to HD Voice. When you first start using HD Voice you notice that the effort to “get” what the other person is saying is reduced, your brain is freed to think about the matter at hand rather than the need to interpolate and extrapolate the conversation. You start noticing nuances and the session almost resembles the dynamics of a face-to-face meeting.
You start to “feel” the other person emotions as if a mask is being removed. Without noticing, you become more attentive and responsive.
Smith: I understand what you’re saying. I love my internal HD voice calls. But not every call is HD. What will it take for all this “HD promise” to become a reality?
AC: What it takes is more people using it. As more people use it the effect become stronger and the pressure to switch as well. The network effect takes place. Each individual user that switches adds to the value of the service to him/her self and to others.
VoIP networks have no problem adding HD Voice, it is just a matter of being innovative and agile as we are at Phone.com the technology is there. The problem is with the interconnecting infrastructure, which is still using standard quality links which forces two HD subscribers back to standard quality if they have to pass via the PSTN.
The VoIP industry is fighting that by creating exchanges that bypass the PSTN and let islands of VoIP users to connect directly using HD voice.
Cellular companies are moving in as well as tests have shown that HD Voice services increase customer satisfaction and help retain customers, and once those larger islands get connected, the HD or not to HD question will be a relic of the past. People who visited the HD Connect summit organized by Jeff Pulver and Dan Berninger have seen how much vendors of all system components and VoIP backbone providers are enthusiastic about the prospects, starting from HD Voice end-points to the office and home, and finishing with conferencing bridges that can link together any HD Voice link you throw at them.
Smith: Enthusiasm is definitely there from a lot key industry players, yet there are people that say HD is a gimmick. Your thoughts?
AC: I actually never heard that, and I do not think people say that on HD TV, do they? As oppose to TV the switching cost to HD with VoIP is low. We do not charge any extra for HD voice service. Calls cost just the same. The end-point (the phone) may cost few dollars more but as soon as demand grows, I am sure the differences will totally diminish.
The interesting part here is that when you buy an HD Voice compatible phone, you gain quality even on standard calls as the sound components of the device the speakerphone the speaker the handset and microphone are all designed to support HD. It is not like having a full HD Voice connection but the quality improvement itself justifies the few dollars extra investment for an HD Voice phone.
Smith: Great point Alon. You do get what you pay for when it comes to endpoints. While we’re on the topic of interesting things people might not know about HD, can you name some common misconceptions?
AC: One misconception is that HD takes more bandwidth of the network. Well this is not true. The de-facto base codec the common denominator for almost all HD Voice components today is called G.722 consumes exactly the same bandwidth as the standard quality base line codec called G.711 which is commonly used today on most VoIP networks. Variants of the G.722 take even less bandwidth.
Some say that the initial cost of trans-coding between a standard quality users to an HD Voice quality user, on the same call, is too much to bear. The fact is that this is a temporary spike which will be compensated by faster growth in revenue, added value that will lower marketing cost, increased computing power to handle the task and the fact that when more people move to HD Voice trans-coding needs will decrease or stay within reasonable boundaries.
Smith: Interesting. Well, you’ve gotten us from the past to the present Alon. What’s the “future” for wideband telephony/ HD calling?
AC: Tomorrow for us is already here. Corporations that will want to become greener and utilize Video conferencing, that in many cases already support HD Voice, will be able to include callers calling from IP Phones or cell phones using HD Voice quality as well, keeping the session more intelligible for all.
Standard audio conferencing services will adopt HD Voice, to enable corporate users to be more productive and dating services will now be able to convey more emotions on those anonymous calls and help lonely people judge a match based on how sweet or quite their voice sounds.
Sales people that will use HD voice will be able to sell more and the economy will flourish again.
Sounds good wouldn’t you agree?
Smith: Sounds good indeed. Take us home with a quick overview of the new HD offering from Phone.com…
AC: The HD Voice service from Phone.com is offered at no additional cost. The first HD Voice handset we started selling is from Polycom which creates a perfect combination of Service and Phone for SMB who wants to take advantage of HD Voice for all on network calls at the most affordable price.