Is VoIP an Excuse for Bad Voice Quality?

In a few hours, the annual Spring VON is going to kick off in San Jose, California. Hundreds of companies, big and small will hawk their wares, pundits will pontificate and a lot of people will talk about convergence. But no one will bring up the dreaded question: Is VoIP an excuse for bad voice quality?

Earlier this morning, with my broadband on the blink, instead of iChatting (free) with my parents, I called them from my old fashioned telephone line – you know the kind the incumbents have been selling for over 100 years.

The conversation involved a lot of yelling into the phone – like we used to back in the day when the Internet wasn’t around, and long distance phone calls cost $3 a minute. While the price of the calls has declined to a few pennies, so has the quality of voice.

One can clearly recall a time when Sprint made a big deal about its voice quality, touting it in a “hear the pin drop” advertisement. AT&T spent hundreds of millions in coming up with a better voice experience, a business that didn’t clearly help save the company, though it made Joe Nacchio (oh yeah, the very same one) quite famous. All that is part of the history phone companies seem to want to bury.

The long distance call between San Francisco and New Delhi might as well have been a call between the International Space Station and my landline – choppy, static filled and barely audible. It is a pattern you observe time and again, because more and more incumbents are using VoIP technologies to carry their international traffic, trying to squeeze whatever little profits there are from the ever-declining business.

Lowering their operational costs is an understandable business move, but for companies whose primary reason for existence has been voice, it is just not cricket. On a testier day, WTF would have been my choice of words, but today, the slight nip in the air, bright sunshine and backache in remission, I am in a more generous mood.

VoIP has been a protocol of choice for a while now, and that is why it is hard to understand the quality problems. While consumer facing services such as SunRocket and Vonage, the shoddy voice quality can be blamed on the broadband bandwidth constraints, the long distance carriers (owned by incumbents now) should not have these problems, given that most of them own their backbones, and the gear seems to have matured enough to provide better voice quality. (Read: PSTN vs. VoIP)

Call me old fashioned, shouldn’t incumbents and the upstarts make Voice their core competency, a deluxe experience (like BT), before offering television and high-speed connections or some dumb Wi-Fi phones? Or is it just that we as consumers have been desensitized, our expectations lowered by the poor quality of mobile phone connections that we will put up with anything as long as it is cheap? I don’t think that is the case – and I pray to god, I am not in minority. If it is poor quality one needs to put up with, then free iChat makes more sense to me. Even Skype – which does a relatively good job for a free service!