How Hi-Fi Voice Will Change Communications Forever

Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver

The next big challenge in VoIP is going to be to prick up your ears.

Everyone — from industry visionary and conference organizer Jeff Pulver, to hardware manufacturers such as Polycom, Cisco and Avaya, to new age service providers such as Skype — seems to be betting the availability of high definition, or hi-fidelity voice is going to drive the next wave of growth in IP communications and further distance the future of telephony from its low-fi legacy past.

“HD voice holds the same promise for the telecom industry as [HD video] format changes did in the entertainment industry,” said Pulver, who announced an HD VoIP Summit to be held May 21st in New York. One of the more influential forces behind the drive to deploy VoIP technology and infrastructure over the past decade, Pulver is excited about hi fidelity voice like nothing since the demise of his seminal VON Conference series last spring; he envisions a transformative hardware replacement cycle like the one currently underway with HDTV.

Some of the biggest players in the hardware space are rolling out the gear, too. Polycom, a long-time innovator of VoIP endpoints, raised the voice fidelity stakes with the introduction of its Soundpoint IP650 deskphone as far back as 2007, and recently introduced the VVX 1500 “media phone,” that supports HD voice, video and integrated web services through a touchscreen interface.

Avaya’s 9670G is another recently released, high-end VoIP-ready phone that supports hi fidelity voice and a blend of functionality that blurs the lines between a traditional desk phone and a computing device. And market leader Cisco offers a number of solutions featuring support for the hi-fidelity g.722 codec, including the 7975G, which features a color touchscreen and one-touch access to both integrated and third-party telephone applications.

The world’s largest IP voice carrier, Skype, believes enough in the inevitability of hi fidelity voice to have made it a feature in the company’s most recently released Windows application (4.0) and, in an unprecedented move for the proprietary platform provider, has freely licensed the codec behind it all, known as SILK, for other providers and developers to adopt and integrate with their own applications and hardware, further spreading the gospel of HD voice.

Skype’s move and the embrace of hi-fidelity voice standards by the hardware manufacturers comes in no small part as a result of the success in the past several years of Global IP Solutions, the company that essentially created the market for wideband codecs with iSAC, which has become a de-facto industry standard, with over 800 million downloads through such popular solutions as Yahoo! Messenger, IBM Lotus Sametime, QQ, and Citrix GoToMeeting.

Are these things ready to take off? Are millions of people poised to embrace a new world of high fidelity sound in voice-to-voice communications?

It’s a high-stakes bet, no matter how you slice it. All of the newest hardware devices supporting the technology are high-end, expensive devices, which are unlikely to begin flying off the shelves in the midst of a global economic malaise. On the other hand, In-Stat, a leading industry research analyst believes the market for high-end media phones such as the Polycom VVX 1500 will reach $3 billion annually within five years.

It’s highly doubtful millions of people and businesses will jump at the chance to pay more for phone services featuring better sound, given the universal hatred reserved for service providers and the relentless imperative to cut telephone costs at home and in business alike.

In the end, however, it’s difficult to argue with the logic of Washington DC-based telecom consultant Daniel Berninger, who says, “The awareness of communication alternatives continues to grow and the outcome no longer seems uncertain.”

Berninger believes we are poised for a communications renaissance similar to the enormous expansion of the information technology sector that attended the demise of IBM’s dominance over computing.

“The challenge with HD voice is that it’s not something you can tell someone about. They have to hear it. And once they hear it for themselves, it’s game over. People will demand it.”