HD Voice: You’re Years Overdue, but Still Welcome
It’s fitting that the company which once differentiated based on the clarity of their calls is the first one to begin marketing enhanced audio calling in the U.S. Sprint yesterday announced their new flagship HTC smartphone, the Evo 4G LTE, and something else along with it: a next-generation technology they’re calling HD Voice.
The technology they’re using “will provide fuller, more natural-sounding and less fatiguing voice quality and should reduce troublesome background noises often found in a cafe or on the street,” according to Sprint’s press release. “Users should expect to identify voices and hear every word better than ever.”
Music to my fatigued ears! The “troublesome background noise” reduction is nothing new; high-end smartphones have used noise-canceling microphones for a while now. The real development is the hearing every word “better than ever.” The means by which Sprint plans to accomplish this bump in quality ties into their deployment of CDMA 1x Advanced, which will incorporate a new EVRC-NW (narrowband/wideband) codec for better compression of voice calls as they traverse the network. The new calls won’t take up more network bandwidth, but they’ll offer an audio experience better than anything American customers have heard before – at least on digital cellular networks.
The reflexive question, of course, is “who cares?” We’ve come a long way from the voice-centric handsets of yesteryear, and calling has become so secondary to more advanced functions that the term “mobile devices” is much more apt than “mobile phones.” If tablets are ushering in a “Post-PC world,” they’re only replicating what smartphones have done to bring cellphones into the “post-calling world.” My editorial on how much I’ve come to loathe phone calls isn’t written yet, but I mentally revise it every time someone replies to a text by calling me, or responds to a Foursquare check-in by ringing me up to ask how the fries are at Good Burger today.
Hold on, though. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, right? Some people get exceptions: I’ll always (okay, usually) pick up the phone for family if I’m available. Girlfriends generally get a pass. Bosses, agents, clients, and other job-related folks make it through. Even good friends who are stubborn enough can sometimes penetrate the screen. In the US, It’s still easier to call a cab in most cities than to summon one with an app. Sometimes high-speed data networks aren’t available, but GPRS, EDGE, or 1x are. So yes, we still need voice calls. Sprint estimates that it will handle 500 billion voice minutes in 2012. That’s a lot of talking, and it sure would be nice to experience higher audio quality while
Some people argue that voice has fallen into such disuse that it’s not worth improving the experience. ABI Research analyst Kevin Burden recently said this in an interview with Computerworld: “The public’s expectation for voice quality on cell phones is so low right now that we’re all willing to deal with (the way it is). There’s such a thing as ‘good enough’ technology. People look at voice quality today on cell phones and say, ‘It’s good enough; it sucks for me, but also for the guy on the other end.'”
I get where Burden’s coming from, and he may well be right. But I don’t like companies that settle for “good enough” technology, or analysts’ implied assertion that practices like that are acceptable. Much as I often dislike it, voice calling is still a core functionality of mobile phones, and it’s in sore need of improvement. It only took the past week in my hometown to make that crystal-clear for me: I was in a largely rural area with poor coverage, surrounded by people who mainly carried old clamshell phones. I made a lot of calls, and I wished all of them were clearer. Then I started wondering why we’d been shoehorned into such horrible bit rates on our phone conversations for so long. That eventually led me to consider whether I prefer text, email, and IM to voice calls because the former are at least clearly understandable.
The murky, muddy waters of voice calls have left their mark: differentiating between different vowel sounds is pretty tough even on the more liberal codecs used by digital networks. When I had to change my train tickets over the phone, Amtrak’s automated attendant was careful to spell out the letters in the reservation code phonetically -“C as in Charlie, Z as in Zebra” – so there would be no confusion. It was only by speaking deliberately and slowly and listening intently that I could effectively communicate. If I’d been talking at my normal rate and intonation, it would probably have looked a lot more like a recent voicemail transcription I received from Google Voice.
Yes, I understand completely.
Okay, that’s a cheap shot -Google Voice transcriptions are hopeless on the best of days- but it illustrates the point. Even if the Google Voice speech-to-text engine was doubly intelligent, I’d wager it would still have trouble deciphering a lot of what people say over cellular connections. Based on what folks have said from the “ears-on” tests at the Evo 4G LTE announcement, it sounds like HD Voice will be a massive improvement.
Sprint’s not the only one able to tout this improvement, of course, and it comes with a host of caveats. Verizon, AT&T, and eventually T-Mobile are all likely to deploy VoLTE, which includes support for wideband audio, so Sprint’s not going to be the only game in town for very long at all. Also, in order to take advantage of “HD Voice,” both people on a call need to carry devices with compatible chipsets, and the network needs to support it. Right now, the only capable hardware is the yet-to-be-released Evo 4G LTE, and the network won’t be ready across the country until late 2013. Indeed, the mentioned press release notes that the earliest the Network Vision upgrade could start to roll out is “late 2012.”
So HD Voice on Sprint will only be available later this year, and with only one device capable of supporting it. For now, that’s a bleak forecast. But the pace of innovation, competitive pressures, and the ever-present need for differentiation will continue to make a strong case for this unique and long-overdue upgrade to the core functionality of the modern cellphone. In a few years, Americans will hopefully all be enjoying the clear, crisp calling that some other countries have known for years … if there’s anyone left who won’t send them to voicemail before responding with a snarky text message.
Kevin Burden quote source: Computerworld