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Telcos tuning up for HD Voice

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Comment All the UK's networks are going to be rolling out "HD Voice" over the next year or two, promising to relay every nuance of our words and stop us making calls on the bog.

Orange was first up, announcing back in December that it would be rolling out the service over the next year, and 3 has started doing live demonstrations on their test network. However, no one is saying how much punters will be asked to pay for HD Voice, or why 2010 will be the year we'll all decide that the quality of our phone calls just isn't good enough anymore.

The technology has been around for a long time, and standardised too, so operators could have done this years ago if they'd wanted. Infrastructure vendors added WB-AMR codec (the standard being used) to their portfolios a long while back, and there's no technical reason why operators couldn't have created the point-to-point data connection between handsets necessary to ensure the audio isn't mucked about with en route. But until now no one has bothered, as the quality of a voice call was always considered to be "good enough".

That's now changing as operators have been busy shifting their networks to an IP core - making point-to-point connections much easier to arrange - and 3G handsets have fallen in price to the point where the incremental cost of including the WB-AMR codec is minimal.

And HD Voice is a 3G technology, so there was no point trying to roll it out without decent 3G coverage. 3 reckons it's reaching 93 per cent of people now, indoors and out, though that's been driven by data users (including the ever-vocal iPhone crowd) rather than any desire to improve the quality of conversations.

That combination of core, handset and coverage means that upgrading the voice signal isn't a big deal: it's a cheap way of adding value, and HD Voice does make for clearer calls. By capturing the lows and highs of the human voice the codec reproduces the conversation in a much more audible way.

All that additional data means greater compression, to fit into much the same radio bandwidth, but the affect of that additional squeezing isn't noticeable against the improvement in quality. That improvement is palpable; one can hear much more of what's being said, and background noises can be filtered by the brain rather than coalescing into a mush of interference.

The quality is, in summary, like a good Skype connection - and equally dependent on the kit being used. That kit isn't in production yet, so it's new handsets all round as support for WB-AMR becomes a standard feature over the next year or two.

Not that you'll be able to make HD calls even once you've got your new handset and your network has done the necessary upgrades - you'll also need to be within a 3G signal, and your mate will need to be similarly well equipped, not to mention on the same network.

Inter-network calling will come, eventually, and there'll no doubt be some sort of interoperability forum announced at Mobile World Congress next month. In fact, though, there's much less incentive for operators to connect their services than ever before - it's not that you won't be able to speak to customers on competing networks, they will just sound crappy compared to calls made to those you've convinced to join you.

What about integrating with Skype, and the fixed networks? "At some point we're going to have to do something about that," 3 told us, which bodes badly for anyone impatient for integrated quality calling.

So HD Voice will come, slowly and painfully. When you first hear it you'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality, and then mildly disappointed when you discover the exacting circumstances required don't reoccur for a year or two. In a decade we'll all be using HD Voice, but for the next few years at least it's just another sticker for handset manufacturers to put on the boxes of their phones. ®

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