Advent of HD Voice May Give IP-Based Providers Upper Hand

Binatone's CAT-iq HD voice-enabled phone

Binatone's CAT-iq HD voice-enabled phone

January 19, 2011 ­- After years of dormancy in test labs worldwide high-definition voice is springing to life as a force for superior audio performance on cell phones and IP-based voice services.

Reporting on the state of adoption in November, the Global Mobile Suppliers Association said HD voice is now commercially available on ten mobile networks in nine countries, including Armenia, Belgium, Egypt, France, India, Moldova, Russia, Spain and the U.K. “Several more operators are trialing or deploying the HD voice feature on their networks,” says GSA president Alan Hadden. “Several more HD voice launches are expected in the coming months.”

In the broadband voice-over-IP domain, Google last May signaled HD voice will become a part of its Google Voice offering, possibly with implementation of HD voice engines on its Android OS, following its purchase of the Norwegian voice technology supplier Global IP Solutions. While Google hasn’t announced an HD voice offering as yet, stand-alone VoIP companies Packet 8, Skype and Ooma are offering high definition voice codecs, including in Skype’s case a version of its SILK codec that’s designed to work in the mobile VoIP realm.

While rollouts of HD voice by cellular providers cited by GMSA have been tied to traditional switched voice technology running on 3G and earlier generation networks, the high-def mobile VoIP phenomenon is gaining traction as a separate voice app on the data side of 3G networks, including Verizon Wireless and AT&T in the U.S., both of which have cut deals to offer the Skype HD VoIP app. With the coming of 4G networks, which will operate all voice services in VoIP mode, HD voice is likely to become a point of differentiation for driving consumer service upgrades, experts say.

HD voice poses a significant challenge for switched-circuit networks at the point of intersection between fixed and mobile voice calls. The old mode of transcoding from 16 kilobit-per-second mobile voice to 64 kbps PCM (pulse code modulation) ­based fixed line calls must be replaced with new functionalities that connect high-def mobile calls operating in the AMR-WB (Adaptive Multi Rate-Wideband) mode with standard PCM voice or high-def operating on the fixed line G.711 standard.

But no such problems attend the IP voice realm, which offers packet voice-based cable operators a potential new advantage against telco competitors. At year’s end CableLabs announced eleven industry suppliers had taken part in an HD voice interoperability event focused on testing progress with implementation of the Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) Forum’s CAT-iq (Cordless Advanced Technology ­ internet and quality) wideband voice technology, which expands the RF frequency range from the traditional 300-3400 Hertz to 150-7000 Hz.

The combination of the DECT cordless standard with wideband voice can be implemented in customer premises equipment that integrates a broadband gateway with a DECT base station, thereby allowing any CAT-iq compatible handset to experience HD voice over the broadband network, as long as the caller on the other end is using an HD handset. In cable’s case, CableLabs has adopted the DECT CAT-iq cordless specifications as part of its PacketCable HD Voice initiative.

CableLabs reported the interop, held December 6-10, demonstrated a high level of interoperability between test participants’ handsets and base stations, including equipment from Binatone, BroadSoft, CCT, DSP Group, Lantiq, Panasonic, RTX, Samsung, SMC Networks, Technicolor and VTech. “This event represents a significant milestone in proving the technology choices for enabling HD Voice for consumers in North America,” said Daniel Rice, vice president of access network technology at CableLabs. “We successfully tested registration, paging, Caller ID display, Call Waiting notifications, barge-in, CODEC negotiation and multi-line applications in numerous vendor combinations, among other items.”

Added Jeff Lewis, senior director of technology product development, broadband devices, at Comcast, “This interop was great to observe because it was one of the best attended interops held for DECT HD voice. It showed tremendous gains being made with this technology.”

Lewis said vendors demonstrated product interoperability between DECT chipsets, base stations, handsets and SIP-based applications of different suppliers using PacketCable MTA (multimedia terminal adapter) devices for European and American frequency plans. “This level of interoperability is one of the keys to unlock HD Voice delivery,” he observed. “It opens the way for retail availability of new and innovative handsets for HD voice and SMS texting that work on cable right out of the box.”

For mobile operators, at least, HD voice is starting to pay dividends in terms of customer satisfaction and retention. Europe’s Orange, which in 2009 became the first cellular provider anywhere to offer AMR-WD commercially, recently reported it had seen a 90 percent increase in customer satisfaction ratings, leading to higher ARPU and lower churn. The company, now supporting HD voice on 3G networks in France, the U.K., Belgium, Spain, Armedia and Moldova, offers HD voice on six handsets from four suppliers, including Nokia, Samsung, LG Electronics and HTC, officials said.

Owing to the relatively short product cycle for mobile handsets, averaging 24 months per user, HD voice usage could expand rapidly as carriers bring it to market, suggests voice technology supplier Dialogic. In a recently issued white paper the firm says, “The size of mobile user acceptance should quickly take the market for HD voice far beyond today’s slow pace of enterprise adoption, allowing HD voice to reach large numbers of early adopters, followed by mass market acceptance worldwide. Once mobile HD voice is available, the tipping point is estimated to be 12 to 24 months for widespread adoption. Also, markedly superior voice quality on mobile phones is likely to result in even more rapid fixed-to-mobile migration.”

In a report issued last year ABI Research said it would take another two years or so for mobile HD voice to hit stride. But once it does, usage will spike rapidly to an anticipated 487 million subscribers by 2015, the firm said.

But with 4G in the offing and many 3G networks offering support for VoIP over the data stream as an alternative to their switched-circuit voice service, it may well be HD voice on the broadband mobile VoIP side that drives the market, especially in light of the fact that HD VoIP codecs can be implemented without costly network upgrades. Frost & Sullivan predicts mobile VoIP will generate $29.57 billion by 2015. Adding HD codecs such as Verizon and AT&T have done in the U.S. and SK Telecom is doing in South Korea could become routine as carrier resistance to allowing mobile VoIP continues disappears.

Interestingly, SK Telecom, like many mobile carriers, had strongly resisted VoIP prior to changing its mind in July in conjunction with an accelerated LTE rollout and updated mobile broadband strategy. While the company said it expects VoIP to have a negative impact on revenues in the short term, it believes the attraction of the VoIP option as part of mobile broadband will drive customer demand for LTE services.