What is holding back high-definition voice?

The discussion about high definition (HD) voice services enabled by IP networks has been going on for years.

HD voice is a digital technology that provides a near-CD quality sound for telephone conversations. Anyone who has used Skype can tell you how much better HD voice sounds. An interesting Skype study of HD voice in 2010 indicates that HD voice calls last 45% longer than calls with standard quality. For service providers that charge per minute, this increased call time could generate a lot of extra revenue.

So if HD voice is so great and can generate longer calls that will increase revenue, why do not service providers offer HD voice today? The problem is because we are still burdened by the legacy Pubic Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) that will never support HD voice. If any leg of an HD voice call touches the PSTN, its HD voice quality is reduced to standard phone quality.

Today, HD voice calls are limited to single VoIP networks, such as Skype to Skype calls or calls with in a single enterprise or service provider IP network. A number of efforts have been made to enable HD voiceas a service offering that can be used by any person with a IP phone. The challenge isenabling end to end IP interconnection between different service networks so HD voice quality can be transmitted.

These efforts have been led by businesses with the hope of becoming the single interconnect solution for all HD voice calls. It would be a great business, but all these initiatives have failed because they concentrate too much business leverage to the operator who enables the end-to-end HD voice calls.

BT is joining the ranks of those who want to enable the benefits of HD voice. The BT offer is described in the BT High Definition Voice White Paper. It is a well-written white paper, but the proposal to enable ubiquitous HD voice service will probably languish like all the others. Global HD voice service does require a centralized party to provide routing and service discovery among HD voice enabled networks. But the central party must be non-threatening to service providers. It is a job that could never be fulfilled by a telecom operator.

The banking industry had a similar networking challenge 40 years ago. They solved the problem in 1973 through a cooperative business model and created Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). Since SWIFT is owned by the banks, it cannot be a threat. Any profits earned by SWIFT are paid as dividends back to the member banks. The SWIFT model may be the solution the telecom industry needs to unlock the promise of full HD voice and other IP enabled services such as video calls.