High Definition to Crash the Voice Party

The iPhone and the Apple (s aapl) App Store may have set a new standard for design and availability of mobile apps, but the iPhone operates within the same decades-old voice quality constraints as other handsets. Indeed, the rapid pace of handset innovation does not change the fact that AT&T (s t), BT (s bt), Telefonica (s tef) et al cannot improve voice quality. But a new generation of VoIP devices supporting G.722 and other wideband codecs threatens to disrupt a telcom industry built on mediocre voice quality.

On one hand, the analog infrastructure between the end user and the telco central office limits landline voice quality; on the other hand, the network equipment cell phone companies deploy sacrifices voice quality in order to make more efficient use of spectrum. While overcoming these limitations requires a complete overhaul of the telephone network, Internet-connected devices, represent the only practical means to build a High Definition Voice Network (HDVN). This is especially true when it comes to landlines; a G.722 wideband codec doubles landline frequency response and pushes fidelity toward an FM broadcast signal. (See a demo created by Siemens Gigaset.)

As with any technology rollout, there are identifiable obstacles ahead. Improving voice quality requires compatible devices at both ends of the connection, for example, and the specific communication contexts or content that require voice quality improvements remain uncertain. Notably, an emergent HDVN will not immediately enjoy the reliability and ubiquity of the traditional telephone network. And since it will require reliable broadband access, the early focus will be on fixed locations.

A similar list of issues did not, however, prevent the introduction FM, color TV, CDs, DVDs or HDTV. And people will embrace the HDVN as they experience the benefits of improved voice quality in contexts that involve emotional content. In particular, the HDVN ecosystem will operate more like the Internet and web rather than the vertical integration model of traditional telecom.

For a glimpse into the benefits of an HDVN, look no further than Skype (s ebay). If an HDVN can replicate Skype’s ease of provisioning and use while leveraging open rather than proprietary protocols, the telephone business will change forever. But the decision to compromise voice quality via a revenue model based on connecting calls to the telephone network also makes Skype a cautionary tale. An HDVN needs to survive as a platform for selling software and devices, as in the case of the web. Telephone companies will look for ways to undermine an HDVN as they’ll see it as a threat to their connectivity gatekeeper status. The success or failure of these efforts will determine whether voice quality remains unchanged for another 50 years.

Daniel Berninger
is the CEO of Free World Dialup.