Why HD voice is the new battleground for U.S. carriers

I’ve carried mobile phones for about 15 years now, but I still hate talking on them: In addition to coverage problems, the call quality stinks and network latency issues often lead to awkward conversations where both parties talk – and then stop – at the same time.

That’s why I’m excited about the imminent arrival of HD voice, which can deliver improved call quality and reduced latency as well as easing strain on the cell network. HD voice also promises to be a big advantage for U.S. carriers who can deploy and market it to long-suffering consumers, and who can integrate it with multimedia and other cutting-edge mobile offerings.

Differing technologies, differing strategies

As the 4G era matures, U.S. carriers are employing different strategies as they prepare to improve call quality. Sprint will deploy HD voice as part of its Network Vision initiative, which will upgrade its existing CDMA network to support 1X Advanced. The new technology was developed by Qualcomm and will increase both capacity and performance for voice calls, according to the carrier. Sprint will begin to roll out HD voice by the end of the year.

AT&T and Verizon wireless, on the other hand, both plan to use their new LTE networks to offer HD voice beginning next year. The carriers thus far have used their 4G networks only for data, opting to run voice calls over their older HSPA and EVDO networks. The two largest U.S. operators will follow the lead of Korea’s SK Telecom, which earlier this month claimed to become the first operator on the planet to offer VoLTE (Voice over LTE).

Meanwhile, MetroPCS is beginning to dip its toes in the water by selling a single VoLTE-enabled handset and launching service in Dallas that will expand to other markets “in the coming weeks.” But as Sascha Segan of PCMag.com wrote last week, calls on MetroPCS’s new service don’t sound any better – or worse – than calls on its 3G CDMA network. So while the 4G calls may be more efficient for MetroPCS to deliver, they don’t bring any real value to consumers – at least not yet.

HD voice + data = compelling next-generation services

That’s a problem because voice quality has suffered as carriers increasingly (and justifiably) chase the booming demand for mobile data. And as J.D. Power reported last week, audio quality is the third most-important component of the customer experience in mobile, outpacing problems like text transmission failures and late voicemail deliveries.

That may be understandable given the waning demand for mobile phone calls in the U.S. and Western Europe over the last few years. Carriers have shifted their focus away from voice revenues as they look to ramp up data usage thanks to demand for access to social networks, streaming media and other content.

But decreasing usage of traditional voice minutes likely is linked to the inferior quality of those calls: I almost never use my mobile to talk if a hard line is available, or if SMS or email is an acceptable substitute. And while the term “HD voice” may imply nothing more than improved call quality, it lays the foundation for huge advances in mobile messaging. As my colleague Kevin Fitchard recently wrote, new technologies will enable carriers to integrate voice with features such as video, image-sharing and presence, ushering in a new era of communication.

A key selling point

Sprint and MetroPCS may have a head start on the race to deploy superior voice services, but every carrier will face challenges: MetroPCS will have to embrace better quality codecs to differentiate its VoLTE service from its competitors’ legacy offerings, and Sprint must move quickly to deploy a quality HD voice offering in as many markets as possible by year’s end. And T-Mobile USA should move aggressively to roll out HD voice hand-in-hand with its LTE service, which is scheduled to launch next year.

Smaller carriers can make up some ground on their bigger competitors if they can deploy HD voice services quickly, and can market them aggressively. But that window will begin to close next year as AT&T and Verizon Wireless bring their next-generation voice services to market. So the next few months will be critical as mobile voice once again becomes a key selling point for network operators.

Question of the week

How will HD voice services impact the wireless market in the U.S.?
Relevant Analyst
Colin Gibbs

Colin Gibbs

Mobile Curator Gigaom Network

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