Can you hear me now? You bet I can, and in HD

Can you start your car now? Now imagine if that was the ad tagline of a carmaker–let’s say BMW, which takes a lot of pride in their engineering abilities and calls their product “the ultimate driving machine.” That wouldn’t be very inspiring.

And yet, we are glad to use Verizon’s (s vzw) tagline, “Can you hear me now?” all the time. In fact, we think of Verizon as the paragon of phone call quality in this country. And the reason we do that is because we have very low or little expectations from the voice experience. It is virtually impossible do have a decent conversation these days on any device. Calling mom via AT&T (s t) long-distance? The good news is that I don’t have to hear what she has to say about my marital status.

Calling my sister on the phone in Midwest on what is a Verizon-to-Sprint (s s) call is like playing a guessing game. Dropped calls on an AT&T network are routine. The blame goes squarely on carriers not investing enough in their voice infrastructure; instead, they invested all their dollars on data, which is essentially a big giant ATM machine for the mobile operators. The IP-ization of voice only added to the declining voice quality.

Thanks to constant complaints from consumers, availability of more bandwidth and, of course, new technologies, we can hope that those days bad calling experience are behind us. We have the emergence of what we’ll call HD, or hi-def voice, to thank.

What’s the reason for my optimism? Some recent developments:

  • Skype recently introduced Opus, a new codec that it will use as part of its service and is also making it available for others to adopt. It is now an IETF standard. Skype (s msft) argues that Opus is better quality than other existing codecs. They offer test results, but frankly like anything, we better believe our own ears than take word of a company that considers clutter to be a great user interface.
  • Google is pushing its own hi-def codecs as part of Google WebRTC. Could it eventually find its way into Android? (s goog) Maybe.
  • But the biggest development came this week when Apple (s aapl) announced what it calls “wideband audio,” which is its attempt to create a better call experience. Apple announced that it was initially working with 20 carriers across the globe and I am guessing more and more will join in the future.

 In 2009, columnist Dan Berninger wrote:

iPhone and the Apple App Store may have set a new standard for design and availability of mobile apps, but the iPhone operates within the same decades-old voice quality constraints as other handsets. Indeed, the rapid pace of handset innovation does not change the fact that AT&T, BT, Telefonica et al cannot improve voice quality.

Apple has been good at pushing new technologies at scale. And thanks to the fact that iPhone is still a must sell-device for the carriers, we can expect wider adoption of wideband audio. We have been crying for HD voice for a long time. As Dan further observed, “people will embrace the HDVN as they experience the benefits of improved voice quality in contexts that involve emotional content.”

We agree. Earlier this year, my colleague Kevin Tofel played around with Bria for Android and was amazed by the wideband audio calls he was able to make. He shared his impressions with readers and like him, I cannot wait for improved quality of voice. Perhaps, maybe once again, voice will sound like voice and be as reliable as that BMW.