How and why telephones are going to get a whole lot better

We can fly to the Moon but we can’t have a phone call with reasonable quality. Why? TechEye talks to Xconnect’s Eli Katz on how we can hear each other better and what’s in the pipeline for telecoms the world over.

Back in 1936 – 74 years ago – boffins accepted that about 3.3Khz was the accepted frequency that telephone calls are going to run on and it’s been like that, generally, ever since. Call quality is reasonable but leaves a lot to be desired. Think calls from Skype to Skype where quality is often crystal clear. 

But actually, call delivery which features excellent quality and a much higher frequency is completely possible. It’s essentially, in simple terms, the same change media went through when ditching the analogue tape for CD and IP calls are the catalyst for that change. HD Voice is the way forward and it’s going to be good.

IP and HD voice has taken off in the States and in Asia but the UK and Europe has been slower to adopt. Orange just announced that it’s going to take the leap which is in a sense making not just one leap, but two – since mobile phone calls are generally of poorer quality than landline, taking the jump into HD voice is gung-ho but a good idea. Eli Katz tells us that most new Private Branch Exchanges (or PBX) and handsets are equipped to work with HD voice, it’s just the matter of setting up the service on networks and tweaking acoustics appropriately.

And for businesses which want HD on their PBX, the price is almost marginal – just a couple of dollars more could make all the difference for call quality. 

The technology for HD Voice has been around for a couple of years already, but only seen adoption that brings it to the forefront in the last six months or so though we’re told that in the widest sense of the telecoms industry, adoption is happening on way or another. Migration is already happening and that includes fixed line, mobile, web, Skype, enterprise PBXs, Apple Facetime – anything you can think of. HD Voice is just one of the “new services” that is delivered by IP now. The old legacy stuff is rubbish for video calling and the like.

It’s a small matter of getting the networks to play ball and have the right telco exchanges and systems in place for it to start getting widespread usage. That is where Xconnect comes in – but we’re told that everyone’s playing ball. Xconnect has some very high profile customers many of which can’t be named because of the curse of the Non Disclosure Agreement, but some we do know about are Korea Telecom and a long list of tier ones in the States as well as cable operators in the Netherlands.

“The challenge is that, despite the technology on the way to toward adoption, the underlying interconnect structure hasn’t really changed,” Katz tells us. “Take Skype as an example. Skype to Skype offers a healthy range of services, it uses super-wideband on audio and obviously there is video. But all of those services are only available on Skype to Skype. So if you use Skype out or in, you lose that all and go to what is literally the lowest common denominator, you go back to plain voice call only, back to 3.3Khz.”

The reason, says Xconnect, is that the underlying structure has not kept up with the technology being developed. It’s understandable – when SMS text messages first did the rounds it was initially only available within the same network as the service provider. If you were on T-Mobile, you could only text message others on T-Mobile. The next step was to figure out an interconnect mechanism on a cross network basis.

The benefits of cross network interconnects speak for themselves. Just take a look at how popular SMSing is now – first it could be used nationally and now it’s a global standard. 
The word on the telco street is that with the “new” services, the IP based services, similar steps are being taken to sort out cross networks. The next step, beyond offering the services to customers, is bringing it all together – and that’s where Xconnect comes in.

At the moment Xconnect reckons it’s leading the way on IP interconnections. A driver for using Xconnect’s services is Federation, which has backing from important sounding telecoms networks. If a service provider is still at the regular, voice only service, it’ll want to seek an IP connection base through Federation. This works on a hub and spoke network model and, contrary to older legacy systems, it will take information on the most direct route. The older network models will usually take four or five hops to get to their destination – and that impacts on the end quality as well as cost.

Federation, which has been adopted by the GSM Association (GSMA), takes the most efficient and direct route. For new services, it’s basically the only mechanism that can be used, and it takes two core concepts. Firstly it uses something called ENUM which is essentially like a yellow pages database for delivery points. It figures out where the perfect delivery point for the service in the world is and  heads straight there. It maps telephone addresses to an IP world. Multimedia Interconnect backs it all up and is used to deal with any technical, commercial or contractual challenges.

Basically Federation is more efficient and scalable. It has more support for new services and is the nuts and bolts of the telephony world that’s just emerging and beginning to make its way to the front line of both consumer and business minds. 

As well as Xconnect, Katz is founder of the Internet Telephony Services Providers’ Association and Xconnect has the backing of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. 

We thought we’d ask him about LTE and WiMAX. He did not comment on which technology is going to gain the upper-hand but he did tell us that the Federation interconnect is going to be vital for the technologies. Any operators who want to go for it just have to be ready themselves, as it’s waiting to be used in addition to the other 200 providers it supports. 

In the meantime we asked what’s next for Xconnect – Katz told us that the next focus will be on video.

Growth is happening across all segments, consumer, business and enterprise. We can expect services like HD Voice to really up the game and make telephony a better experience, in the workplace and at home.

Operators in the UK are beginning to take on the idea and we’ll see a push over the next couple of years. And like what happened with SMS, they’ll be on the same wavelength soon enough.

*EyeSee – With video next on the agenda, we mentioned Cisco which has recently been acquiring companies left right and centre. It’s gearing up for an announcement at IBC 2010 in Amsterdam on video. We asked Katz if he knew what Cisco was up to and if it is going to release something that’ll blow the industry away. He said: “Rest assured, that is a safe assumption to make.” We didn’t get any more than that but watch this space.