Losing your voice: Will HD change the game?

HD voice is a technology that doesn’t seem to get the same level of attention as other value adds for operators, such as LTE, video optimisation and rich communication services (RCS). Perhaps it’s quite understandable – voice is the one service that operators have, for the longest time now, been able to bank on their customers using; it’s their core service.

Yet it’s well known that the market trend is of voice revenues decreasing, largely as a result of the rise in alternative means of communications. I make voice calls less frequently than I did ten years ago and instead rely more heavily on SMS, email, social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and OTT apps such as WhatsApp to communicate with friends, family and colleagues. Is a better quality of voice calls going to change those communication habits?

Like many people, I also use OTT VoIP services such as Skype, especially for international calls. However, a problem facing operators is that services such as Skype and Google Talk are already beginning to support HD voice. The technology cancels out background noise during phone calls without compromising the call quality and extends the range of audio frequencies delivered. I was given a demo of the technology’s capabilities recently from HD Voice vendor Audience, and you can really notice the difference.

While HD voice chips are included in an increasing number of new devices such as the iPhone 5, Motorola Razr i and the Samsung Note, the  big problem facing mobile operators’ support of HD voice is that the technology has to be enabled on both devices and the network supporting the call.

Essentially this means it doesn’t currently have much support. The GSA reported in late January this year that only 61 mobile networks in 45 countries had deployed the technology. In fact, according to a survey carried out by Telecoms.com Intelligence, 24.5 per cent of respondents have no plans to introduce HD voice services at all, and 34.9 per cent of respondents said that they plan to launch HD voice services at the same time as launching VoLTE – which for the majority, is between 12 and 24 months after launching LTE networks.

The reasons for operators’ reluctance to deploy HD Voice services is quite straightforward. According to Alan Hadden, president at the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), it comes down to cost.

“There is money that has to be spent,” he explained. “And operator CFO’s, unless they can see an immediate return on investment, have other priorities, such as building mobile data networks,” he said.

Hadden added that while the changes that need to be made to the network itself are not so costly, responsible operators will have to spend time and money testing all the devices on their networks to ensure that they are up to the HD Voice standard.

Yet much like how broadband changed our perception of the quality of internet browsing, it’s possible, with enough support that HD voice could do the same to our perception of voice calls. Today, we look back at dial-up internet connectivity and wonder how we coped with it – the same could become true of the “standard-definition” voice calls we make today.

Hadden believes that for this reason, operators that think they can get away with ignoring HD Voice will change their minds when the ecosystem matures and competitors start supporting it. Customers’ friends will begin using it and talking up its benefits and people will start asking operators for HD Voice capabilities at the point of sale, he cautions.

OTT services have already eroded much of the messaging service revenues for operators in mature markets, which is why operator initiatives such as Joyn face an uphill battle. Operators that opt not support HD Voice stand to be in a position where they are offering a lower quality voice service than both competitors and OTT providers.

Rather than being perceived as a value-add, perhaps HD Voice should be perceived as a minimum requirement by operators; a hygiene factor. While the technology has not yet reached a critical mass — consumers are not exactly lobbying operators to support it just yet — the HD voice movement is steadily gaining momentum. In my view, to prevent customer churn in the short term, operators would be wise to invest in the inevitable sooner rather than later.

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One comment

  1. Avatar Michael Elling (@Infostack) 19/08/2013 @ 1:25 pm

    It’s not just a device and network issue (intranet) but an inter-network issue as the call/session is HD between 2 parties on different networks. This is why we need scalable, automated, low-cost settlement solutions which “clear” supply and demand horizontally across networks as well as vertically between layers.

    Bill and keep was a great short-term experiment when the cost of transport was commoditized and the edge (analog, voice) access was bypassed by digital data. What’s needed going forward are balanced or bilateral settlements. But not the 2-side revenue (taking) models of the monopolies nor the inefficient tariff (subsidies) decreed by regulators of old. These need to be high volume, scalable exchanges whose pricing/transaction fees reflect marginal cost. Their foundations will be built on the big-data analytical engines being developed at present.

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