Audio may be at least one of the next battlefields in convergence. At least three companies -- including ubiquitous Microsoft, which is using wideband audio on the Office Communications Server -- are introducing products. That isn't happening a moment too soon, because a Keynote Systems report released this week says VoIP audio is mediocre at best.
Last week, I interviewed Alan Percy, AudioCodes' director of market development. In addition to outlining his company's introduction of wideband audio technology under the moniker High Definition VoIP -- a fuller description is available here -- Percy described the reason there is so much upside.
Essentially, decisions were made over the past half-century that limit the range of transmitted audio. Today, cable operators, telephone companies and device hardware and software vendors have the technology to go way beyond those boundaries. So far, at least three companies -- Polycom is the third Percy mentioned -- are taking advantage. The complexity is that different types of networks -- say, a thin wireless network and a bandwidth-rich fiber infrastructure -- use different approaches. One part of the AudioCodes family is designed to enable these networks to seamlessly communicate. Technical information on some of the codecs used is available here.
The attention is warranted, according to Keynote. This week, the report that says VoIP quality is the same as it was the last time it did the report. That's news, since not improving in a year and a half -- the previous Keynote report was released in April, 2007 -- is a no-no in the Internet age. Today, the study says, VoIP audio is considered "merely tolerable." It found that Comcast Digital Voice was the best of the mediocre bunch, scoring 901 points. Verizon's VoiceWing earned 609 points and AT&T landline service was third at 506 points. On a side note, the study found that VoIP reliability is improving.
This week, Polycom introduced the SoundPoint IP 450. This piece says that the company describes it as a mid-range high-definition-capable phone. It is the ninth wideband phone introduced by Polycom. Commentary in the piece says that high-definition, or wideband, audio doubles or more the information-carrying audio. A big challenge, then, is to remove the extraneous data that is invariably dragged along for the ride. The piece describes how Polycom handles this challenge without compromising the benefits the additional bandwidth offers.
Audio quality has always been a vital issue in VoIP. It includes the ability to deliver words without dropouts -- missing pieces of words that are axed because latency and jitter become too great. Deepness and richness of the audio are separate issues determined by the sampling rate, codec type and other things. Thus, audio quality relies on two parallel elements: audio-specific standards and the overall robustness of the network. In the end, though, users measure them much more simply: The audio either sounds good or bad.