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Is HD Voice Really Heard 'Round the World?

Sarah Thomas
8/15/2013
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The Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) has put out a curiously optimistic forecast on HD voice, claiming that the high-definition technology is already widely available and will soon be mainstream.

That should be HD music to your ears, but I'm having a hard time believing it.

According to the industry association, 83 operators have commercially launched HD voice services on mobile networks in 61 countries, 84 percent more than supported it a year ago. In 17 of those countries, two or more mobile networks offer it. This is important to note because seeing the full benefits of HD voice requires support on both the network on which the call originates and that to which the user is calling.

That's part of what makes HD voice so tricky. It requires support at the network level and device level, and it requires both handsets and both networks to support it. In case that's not specific enough, operators can support different radio standards of HD voice that might not interoperate anyway. So, if you have a HD voice phone on Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), not only can you not necessarily get a crisper call when calling a Verizon Wireless user, but maybe not even when calling another Sprint user if he's on a Samsung Corp. -built base station and you're on an Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) one. (See Sprint Delays HD Voice Launch to Q2.)

The tech uses Adaptive Multi Rate Wideband (W-AMR) technology to amp up the quality of the call, a codec that must be baked into new handsets, along with two microphones and noise-canceling software. The GSA says that the number of compatible devices has increased by 53 percent in the past six months to 245 phones from 17 manufacturers. However, it does point out in the fine print that some of these phones are operator specific or not available on all HD voice networks or in all markets or may require the W-AMR codec to be activated…

I am impressed with the number of operators and handsets supporting HD voice. It's certainly more than I thought, but numbers doesn't necessarily make a service viable. We are still a ways away from fulfilling the true potential of HD voice.

A lot of operators are looking to deploy it at the same time they roll out voice-over LTE (VoLTE), although the two technologies are not interchangeable. In fact, the GSA says that 76 of the operators that have deployed HD voice did so on 3G networks. Only two have it on LTE. VoLTE won't be common until next year or beyond, and the same goes for HD voice.

Even so, it is an important technology to keep an eye on. Sure, no one makes voice calls any more, you say, but maybe they'd start again if the quality makes them more palatable. HD voice promises to do that -- some day, soon, just not yet.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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simpki
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simpki,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/19/2013 | 1:47:33 PM
Re: HD voice standards
VoLTE allows for AMR-WB codecs which exceed the 12.65kbps rate most widely used over CS voice on UMTS/GSM worldwide...so yes, it ostensibly will have better voice quality insofar as UE is designed to do the decode without a significant battery draw (my guess is only Apple will get this right at first...they seem to be the only company interested in using quality dedicated silicon where needed).

Interop between carriers is what GSA (and the entire tech news press) misses the boat on every time. Carriers' interconnections must support the new codecs and bitrates.

Another point that gets missed in every article: carriers must not be too conservative on downshifting to AMR-HR or even AMR-FR during peak usage periods. An inconsistent experience makes HD voice all the more frustrating when it's supposed to be the gold standard vs. best effort OTT traffic. I find that with T-Mobile's implementation (the only one I've tested), a cell loses its ability to pass HD calls at a very low congestion threshold. When they were first deploying AMR-WB (I broke the story for DSLR!) they allowed the phone to select the codec. Now the phone must accept whichever codec the network hands it during call setup.
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
8/19/2013 | 12:20:34 PM
Re: HD voice standards
Good point, F,Alpizar. OTT apps that work on the mobile network should only continue to gain more traction on LTE where the experience is better. But, I think the operators having a solid HD voice or VoLTE experience would bring a lot of customers back to their voice platform or stop them from leaving in the first place. It's the path of least resistance and has quality of service baked in. Depending on how they price it, it could be more economical too.
F,Alpizar
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F,Alpizar,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/17/2013 | 10:03:00 PM
Re: HD voice standards
What about OTT options? If the carrier allows a good ip connection, or if you use wif, applications like skype or viber have a very good voice quality. Also if you user SIP, it will allow the codec that you would like to use. As in fixed connections the important thing will be the availability of good quality broadband. Also, for the rest of the world, here we barely get voice communication, due to poor coverage or saturation on populated cities. Here I think OTT will leap over HD voice, when we get the bandwidth, if ever...
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
8/16/2013 | 3:52:50 PM
Re: HD voice standards
I am TRUEly sorry for my poor word choice. I meant that implementations of HD voice today are not the full HD experience in the same way that carrier aggregation is full LTE-Advanced. Given that it requires both networks and handsets to support the same variation of it, the quality could be even better if all those things were in place. That's not to say it's not better with the HD voice they have deployed now, but ubiquitity and interoperability would fulfill the full promise.

I don't think you have to tell the people using HD voice anything. They'll hear the difference and not care what you call it.
DougMohney
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DougMohney,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/16/2013 | 3:43:42 PM
Re: HD voice standards
"It's not true HD voice"? There is a poor word choice. Could you explain what is "true" HD voice is supposed to be?

It sounds like you are saying "True HD voice" is when everyone on every network in creation has HD voice and HD voice calls are magically connected everywhere.

People who have been dealing with HD voice for the last four years would say "true HD voice" indicates call quality, designated as something that has twice the twice the audio delivery of a PSTN narrowband call.

Those folks understand HD voice has NOTHING to do with RF network technology delivery ;you can get HD voice call (audio) quality via AMR-WB via 2G, 3G/HSPA networks, and on a (limited number today) of 4G LTE networks. You can also get HD voice quality on broadband networks through G.722 and OTT clients, but that's an explaination beyond the scope of this discussion.

HD voice interoperability is happening within and between some carriers already. Orange announced interop established between Moldova and Romania with a roadmap to connect all of its subsidiaries in 2013 and start connecting other carriers for call exchange in 2013-2104.  Orange also appears to have some sort of quiet HD voice call exchange going on with DT, since the two share the EE network in the UK, so calls made by either an Orange or DT customer are magically HD voice.  You could argue this is splitting hairs because it's the same NETWORK, but since Orange and DT have vowed to share RF networks, they're going to have to interoperate across Europe.

In addition, a number of carriers are working out IPX call exchange to support transparent HD voice calls from network to network. BT and iBasis seem to have leadership in this area, BT with its efforts and global infrastructure, iBasis because it has a number of Tier 2/3 carrier signed up.

So, do you want to tell the people already making HD voice calls in-network on those 83 operators that they don't have "True" HD voice? That doesn't really make sense, does it? It's not ubiquitous HD voice, therefore it isn't "true"?

 

 
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
8/16/2013 | 3:00:57 PM
Re: HD voice standards
Thank you for the feedback, Doug. What is the 3G HD voice experience like in European countries if you're calling someone on a different carrier? The fact that only 17 countries have 2 or more mobile operators that support it suggest that, while it might be better than 3G, it's not true HD voice.
DougMohney
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DougMohney,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/16/2013 | 10:31:19 AM
Re: Fragmentation
Apple is not supporting AMR-WB unless you buy an iPhone 5 or later model.  It has had the opportunity to introduce support for the 4/4S at any time since the rollout of those phones, but has not done so.

It is not clear if it will support HD voice under Qualcomm's 1X Advanced; I suspect Sprint certainly thought so... but an iPhone 5 on Sprint's network does not support HD voice "at this time." 

It is likely (but not guaranteed, given Apple's fickleness) that the iPhone 5 will support VoLTE via software upgrade in the future.

Carriers will have to interoperate to exchange HD voice calls; it is already starting to happen outside of the U.S. via IPX.  LTE deployments will only accelerate this since anyone buying a nice shiny LTE phone wants it to roam and carriers can't afford to make LTE a step-backwards experience (carriers also want to make money on LTE data roaming, the last great bastion of profits in a world slowly moving towards flat-rate voice on international calls...)
MordyK
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MordyK,
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/16/2013 | 12:53:07 AM
Re: Fragmentation
The natural turnover of phones lends itself to your argument of getting near universal HD Voice device support, and the iOS issue can also be resolved with an update which gets deployed on iOS fairly quickly. But the issue of lack on universal capabilities and experiences of HD Voice from device to device will affect its value, aside for the intercodec issue which can be resolved per my previous comment.

That said I applaud the fact that carriers are making a significant move to finally improve the voice experience and I applaud the carrier communities lack of "conservatism" on the issue.
DougMohney
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DougMohney,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/16/2013 | 12:45:07 AM
Re: HD voice standards
"HD audio" is a horrible term since Intel and car stereo manufacturers have co-oped that particular phrase.....

 
DougMohney
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DougMohney,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/16/2013 | 12:41:20 AM
Re: Fragmentation
For mobile, HD voice device level support (AMR-WB) on the codec level already out there, been out there in most Nokia phones since 2009. More recently, baked into Android for a couple of years, and in Windows 8 Phone.

Apple iOS been slow because, well, it's Apple and they wanted people to buy more iPhone 5s; the iPhone 4 and 4S both have the hardware chops to support HD voice, as demonstated by the jailbrake hacks floating around for T-Mobile and AT&T devices.

If you want to get more granular with requirements for HD voice, like voice processing on the device to filter out background noise and multiple mic support, well, OK, then you need a more expensive device for better quality.  But Nokia has HD voice tied into its low-cost phone targeted for developming markets, so you don't need all the bells and whistles (and cost) to get some benefit out of HD voice.

Delays in rolling out HD voice in the U.S. can be traced to carrier... conservatism? Well, that's a polite way to put it.

 

 
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