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January 08, 2008

HD Voice

The bandwidth of the telephone connection between our homes and the telephone network hasn’t changed in my long lifetime. Although some noise has been eliminated in long distance calls (sometime and if we’re not on a cellphone), voices on the phone still sound like they did sixty-five years ago. We’ve trained ourselves to accept the clipped quality of a telephone voice with its lack of emotional overtones.

You wouldn’t dream of listening to music over the phone. You expect and get much better sound quality from almost any radio and on TV. Movies have Dolby sound. But the telephone is still the telephone.

Guess what? It doesn’t have to be this way. The answer to telephone voice is voice over IP (VoIP) – so long as both parties are NOT on the public switched telephone network.

In the early days of VoIP, we had to save scarce bandwidth and contend with uncertain Internet delivery so we compressed voice even further than the phone network does and made quality even worse. But, today, bandwidth is relatively plentiful and cheap processing power usually lets us overcome any short delivery glitches (technically called jitter). Now high definition voice is not only possible but it’s also being delivered.

My friend Daniel Berninger’s been telling me this for a long time. As CEO of FWD International (in which I’m an investor), he’s insisted that all our new voice applications (like Facebook VoiceMail) be high definition. But, since I have a tin ear and had a cheap set of earphones, I didn’t realize how important high definition voice is.

Yesterday I had a phone call to make to someone in Israel. I tried to place the call on my Vonage phone (cheap rate to Israel). Since Vonage is designed to interface with the traditional phone network and since I was calling an ordinary phone, I would have gotten the usual phone quality if I’d connected. But Vonage said it had no circuits available. I knew the Skype ID of the person I wanted to contact so I put on my brand new headset and called that ID through my computer.

Fortunately the person I was calling is an active Skype user and he was on his computer and saw and answered my Skype call. He apparently had a decent quality headset as well. Skype devotes extra bandwidth – you’re paying for it, not them – to making call quality good when the call is between two Skype users. The quality was not only good – it was superb. Usually when I speak to someone for whom English is not his native language, there is a lot of “what” and “please say that again” and “I didn’t quite understand you” in both directions. None of that. We were on Skype an hour and sound quality made the conversation much better than a phone conversation has ever been.

I used to think the reason I have a hard time understanding people on the phone is because I can’t see their lips and their expressions. Now I realize much of the problem is the terrible audio quality – which we’re so accustomed to – of a traditional phone call.

As more and more of our communication goes over abundant Internet bandwidth and bypasses the telephony last mile and as the handset and headset manufacturers have an incentive to spend a little extra on speakers and microphones to support HD voice, we’re going to start insisting on getting what we’ve been missing. Ironically, voice over IP over a DSL connection over your old copper wires to the phone company (assuming those copper wires support DSL) can be and soon will be better than traditional telephone voice.

Is any more example needed of lack of innovation on the traditional phone network?

BTW, what did I pay for this hour long Skype call to Israel given that I already have a computer and an Internet connection? Nada! Zilch! Skype-to-Skype calls are free anywhere in the world. That’s just money, though; HD voice is priceless.

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