How Can HD Voice Escape Enterprise Islands?
Enterprises are leading drivers of HD voice use. Most large organizations have moved or are moving to IP telephony systems, and most new IP phones come with G.722, the baseline HD voice codec for desk phones, built in. HD voice offers enterprises substantial benefits, particularly in conference calls. Because their superior audio makes it easier for participants to understand one another, HD voice calls are more efficient and less tiring than conventional ones. But for the technology to reach its full potential, large numbers of users both inside and outside of enterprises have to be able to make HD voice calls to one another. And significant obstacles stand in the way of that happening.
A major commercial obstacle is the fact that service providers with large customer bases will have to implement the technology in order for user numbers to reach the levels required. But while this implementation will cost the providers significant time and money, they won't be able to charge extra for HD voice as a feature. Rather, they'll only be able to use it to differentiate themselves from competitors. And the more providers offer it, the less it will differentiate each.
A key technical obstacle is a complex set of issues surrounding codecs and interconnection. Even when networks, services and phones are all HD-capable, they won't support end-to-end HD communication if the end points use different codecs. There will be plenty of opportunity for such mismatches as the technology proliferates. For instance, IP desk phones and hosted VoIP services typically use the G.722 codec. Mobile networks and handsets will use AMR-WB, also known as G.722.2. Many soft phone-based Internet telephony services use codecs developed by GIPS. And Skype has developed its own codec, which it is also offering to vendors and service providers for free.
Two types of service providers have the hefty user numbers needed to help resolve the commercial obstacle: cable telephony providers and mobile carriers. In Europe, mobile carrier Orange is taking the lead. It began offering HD-capable wireless services in Moldova in September, and is expanding it to several other countries including the U.K. this year. In the U.S., cable providers are a good bet to play a leading role. They're locked in a contest to steal customers from the traditional landline carriers. Yet in many cases they just can't find an argument that will convince such customers that cable telephony is better than what they already have. HD voice will provide just such an argument.
Neither type of carrier is currently focusing on connecting HD voice services, present or future, to those of enterprises. Doing so could, however, eventually make sense to them. Mobile carriers could pitch to become the sole wireless providers of enterprise customers, using the ability to provide end-to-end HD voice across both corporate and mobile networks as a selling point. Cable providers could similarly use the lure of HD voice to help them expand from their current consumer businesses into the corporate space.
But the codec compatibility problem will complicate some such attempts. For example, mobile handsets using AMR-WB codecs will not communicate in HD with enterprises' G.722-based phones. One solution would be transcoding between cellular and enterprise networks where they exchange traffic – which adds expense and perhaps delay. Another would be to make sure all the desk phones in question contain AMR-WB codecs. Holders of the AMR-WB patents would like to see that happen. But that solution would require having the enterprises involved base their HD communication on AMR-WB – a somewhat trickier task than going with the ubiquitous G.722.
Cable providers could make HD voice connections to enterprises more easily. The latest versions of PacketCable, the main protocol for delivering VoIP services over cable, support G.722. Thus all cable operators need do is get the right equipment into users' premises to make end-to-end HD voice possible for both consumer and corporate customers. It also makes sense for them to interconnect with other cable providers. Doing so would vastly increase the number of users who can call each other in HD. At the same time, it wouldn't raise fears of decreasing differentiation from competitors. Because of exclusive-franchise rules, cable operators compete only against wireline telcos, not against one another.
Watch VoIP Evolution for information about an upcoming report on HD voice and the role codecs will play in its growth.