HD Quality Voice Calls

Last week in Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) we celebrated the dedication of the HD Voice Network. Thanks to the team at WorkInProgress for hosting us.

Guest post by Daniel Berninger. Reach Dan at dan@danielberninger.com.

Dan Berninger with Edwin Grosvenor the Great Grandson of Alexander Graham Bell

Dan Berninger with Edwin Grosvenor the Great Grandson of Alexander Graham Bell

Quote from a speech Alexander Graham Bell delivered in Kensington, England in 1878:  “It is conceivable that cables of telephone wires could be laid underground, or suspended overhead, communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, country houses, shops, manufactories etc., etc., uniting them through the main cable with a central office where wires could be connected as desired establishing direct communication between any two places in the city. Such a plan as this, though impracticable at the present moment will, I firmly believe, be the outcome of the introduction of the telephone to the public. Not only so, but I believe, in the future, wires will unite the head offices of the Telephone Company in different cities, and a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place. I am aware that such ideas may appear to you Utopian… Believing, however, as I do that such a scheme will be the ultimate result of the telephone to the public, I will impress upon you all the advisability of keeping this end in view, that all present arrangements of the telephone may be eventually realized in this grand system.”

Contemplating the original challenge Alexander Graham Bell sought to address – placing voice on a wire – helps place the benefits of the new all-IP telephone network aka HD voice Network (HDN) in perspective.  Alexander Graham Bell sought to eliminate distance as a barrier to communication.  The HDN provides fresh start and much more promising platform than the public switched telephone network (PSTN) or old telephone network in this regard.  The technology limitations of the PSTN continue to shape the telephone business long after the technology limitations in modes of deployment disappear.  Pause for a moment and contemplate the complete absence of any attempt to improve the experience of telephone call from the creation of the Federal Communication Commission in 1934 to present day.  All manifestations and changes in telephony for 80 years exist for the convenience of government or network efficiencies, so the loss of interest in a plain-old-telephone-call should not come as a surprise to anyone.

The HDN provides a fresh start for thinking about the means of global communication.  The elimination of distance requires elimination of friction impeding communication at a distance.  The HDN doubles the number of octaves associated a telephone call (four to eight) and sets in motion near term implementation of full spectrum (10 octave) audio.  Conventional wisdom regarding the adequacy of standard definition voice rests on a circular rationale.  By definition, the uses of the old telephone network include only those activities feasible with standard definition voice.  Asserting the adequacy of standard definition voice addresses only the narrow set of uses associated with the old telephone network.  No one can dispute people still find it necessary to invest considerable time and money to convene in remote locations in order to communicate – by voice.

A review of incremental industry accomplishments after 1876 (e.g. first transcontinental and transatlantic calls) and the recent decade of euphoria around a revolution in mobility address without exception the question of distribution.  There exists a tremendous accomplishment in solving the challenges necessary to make seven billion devices reachable by telephone numbers.  The accomplishment nonetheless means exactly nothing for the experience of an individual call.  The automation required to make covering the planet with telephones practical degraded the experience of calling from the days when an operator connected every call.

Edward Tuck notes in a 1996 IEEE Symposium speech:  “Telephone service I had in 1984 was in most ways worse than the service I got when I was a little boy in the South in the 1930s. Then, I’d pick up the receiver, and the lady would say, “Number, please,” and I’d say, “I want my Mommy!” She might say, “Well, Skippy, she was over at Miz Ferguson’s, but she left there and now she’s at Miz Furrey’s. Somebody’s using the phone there right now, but I’ll break in and tell them you need your Mama.” We had call waiting, call forwarding, executive override and voice recognition. I didn’t even have to dial. Things went straight downhill from there.”

Alexander Graham Bell’s recognition a voice communication imperative reflects an immersion in the world of the hearing impaired.  His father and grandfather were prominent teachers for elocution and the hard of hearing.  His mother lost the ability to hear at age 5.  The emotional isolation caused by the difficulty of communicating was not an abstraction.  Alexander Graham Bell made a living as a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing throughout the period of his experiments leading to the telephone.  The failure to continue improving voice quality owes to a loss the imperative driving the original invention of the telephone.  The “modern” PSTN and the seven billion telephones on the planet impose a hearing impairment on callers sufficient to justify a hearing aide in daily life.  Alexander Graham Bell would be amazed (as we should be) of a failure to improve voice quality from the standard set in the 1930’s before the invention of the transistor and decades before computing.

Enabling HD voice represents for communication the equivalent of the invention of glasses in the visual realm.  VCXC’s dedication of the HDN on January 6, 2015, during the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, Nevada included Alexander Graham Bell’s great grandson and granddaughter in recognition of the need to resurrect the spirit of the inventor of the telephone in the HDN.  The HDN provides an opportunity to return to the original inspiration of – placing voice on a wire – driving the invention of the telephone.  The HDN places communication on the Moore’s Law ramp of continuous improvement for the first time.  HDN offers the immediate benefits of HD voice quality and global unlimited calling, but there remain unknown horizons and opportunities for expanding communication capacity for the rest of the 21st century.

The VCXC Phase II HDN Trial implements a dual provisioning functionality allowing operators to make telephones reachable via both the PSTN and HDN through an existing Local Number Portability Database.  The adoption of HDN by network operators involves publishing IP/HD routes (IP addresses/routing for Session Border Controllers), identifying a media path, and working through an interoperability checklist.    Enabling the provision cool new services via the HDN provides a first opportunity for network operators to compete with over-the-top service providers.  The replacement of the PSTN by the HDN will pick up momentum and show up on “radar screens” during 2015.  The HDN dedication ceremony marks for the HDN the same type of moment as the deployment of the first few hundred Internet websites by industry insiders in 1993.  The Netscape IPO kicked off hyper-growth as the subsequent phase in the case of the Internet.  The time has come to place bets on whether the HDN follows the same pattern.

Closing Comments (by Ari Rabban):

By now many of us (or perhaps all) know HD TV but not many enjoy HD Voice. The simplest way, to explain HD voice, is to simply have you imagine phone calls with CD quality or better. Dan Berninger has been a big promoter of HD Voice over the past several years and in the 90s was a strong promoter of the then young, VoIP industry. We at Phone.com are proud to be one of the first phone services to introduce HD voice capability on our network. The HD voice network still has a way to go, but we are happy to celebrate its progress we believe it will be another major evolution in this 100-year-old plus industry.

There is no better way to celebrate such progress then to do it with the great grandson and granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the phone! As well as some of the founders of the VoIP industry including our very own Alon Cohen, who co-founded the first VoIP company and the VoIP industry most public evangelist Jeff Pulver (also co-founder of Vonage).

With us at this event were other pioneers: former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley, who helped make HD TV a reality and also Jeff Rohdman Co-founder of Polycom, an HD voice pioneer. We also have David Frankel founder and CEO of ZIPDX, the company that pioneered HD voice conference calling. CEOs and senior executives from Cogent, AT&T, Qualcomm and others also participated. Today we face a business environment where the technology of HD voice, which is pretty much ready for mainstream and policy, is one of the primary reasons it is not more readily available.

When Bell died, the US shut down the entire phone network for one minute in his honor. We can’t do this in 2015, but we can take a ceremonial minute of silence as a final farewell to the old phone network.