Tring! Tring! Better call quality is coming

Tring! Tring! Better call quality is coming

Tring! Tring! Better call quality is coming

The quality of cell phone calls has deteriorated over the years. A new technology, HD voice, promises to reverse the trend, says Molly Wood...

Cellphone calls sound terrible. And the quality of the calls over the years has grown worse, in contrast to the evolution of other modern technologies, degrading into bad digital shouting matches, stutter starts and misunderstandings.

The reasons for these bad calls are many and complicated and basically come down to lousy audio technology that breaks up and squeezes the sound of your voice into little bits and pieces. Then, as those bits get transmitted over a bad or congested carrier connection, some get tossed away or lost and what comes out the other side is garbled or incomplete, sort of like a game of telephone.

Hope always seems to be near. In 2010, next-generation phone networks were supposed to route calls without delays and require less of that squeezing. In 2011, those high-speed LTE (Long-Term Evolution, sometimes called 4G) networks were even closer, and they’d be combined with better phones that would, this time, really truly improve call quality.

But all that turned out to be a lot more expensive and difficult than the carriers had anticipated, and so they haven’t done it yet.

Now, there’s yet another call quality fix looming: HD voice. While the technology has some promise, I’m not sure it will arrive before most of us switch to Skype, Google Voice or give up calling completely.

HD voice is an industry term for a combination of better audio compression (the act of squeezing digital data to make it take up less space), a wider range of audio frequencies and phones meant for better sound and noise cancellation. HD voice expands the sound of a cellphone call from about four octaves to more like seven. That’s closer to the sound of an actual human voice and to what we can actually hear, which is about 10 octaves.
The result is better-sounding calls, less background noise and hopefully less delay - quality as good as a landline, or better.

T-Mobile was the first U.S. carrier to introduce HD voice on its network, first announced at the 2013 CES conference. It’s running now, but with some major caveats. Both sides of a call have to have T-Mobile service, for one thing, and both must have a phone that supports HD voice. Oh, and it can’t just support HD voice, it has to support the specific compression program the carrier is using.

Phones that have all that technology include the iPhone 5 and newer iPhones, the Samsung Galaxy S3 and new versions, the HTC One line and a few others. That’s a popular lineup, so if you have a family plan on T-Mobile and you all have newish phones, you can enjoy high-quality calling, and you maybe already have.

Sprint is slowly adding HD voice as well. The company announced it last year and then didn’t do much of anything for several months. Recently, Dan Hesse, Sprint’s chief executive, said HD voice had arrived in 100 Sprint markets, including New York, Chicago, Dallas and Miami, with a nationwide rollout planned for the middle of the year.

However, Hesse said HD voice would work only on Sprint-to-Sprint calls on supporting phones, because Sprint is using its older network and compression technology for delivering HD calls. That narrows the field of supported phones even more, because slightly older iPhones like the iPhone 5, for example, don’t support Sprint’s compression technology (the newest ones do).

When and if AT&T and Verizon add HD voice, it will most likely be tied to so-called Voice Over LTE, so only newer 4G phones that support LTE can use the feature. The good news? In theory, those calls should work between carriers.

Despite all that confusion, HD voice is considered a standard technology, according to the GSM Association, a group that represents mobile operators across the world. The association has established rules for networks and handset makers who want to use their “HD voice” logo, so we should all know we’re getting the same thing.

David Hutton, the association’s director of technology, said that if carriers and manufacturers were all using conforming technologies, “there’s no reason they shouldn’t be interoperable with another network that supports the HD voice logo.”
Still, he conceded, “ultimately, the operators will initially market the technology within their own subscribers first and foremost.”

To a certain set, call quality seems like an antiquated discussion, but it is still an important buying consideration. In fact, after my recent column comparing the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S5, several readers emailed me to ask why I hadn’t evaluated how those phones worked as phones.


Like so many others, I’ve been trained not to think about talking on the phone, largely because it’s such a painful experience.

In 2011, J.D. Power and Associates found that call quality momentum had “halted,” especially compared with data usage and texting. Its study noted a marked move toward texting, which doesn’t seem surprising, given the dropped calls, distorted audio and failed call connections its survey respondents reported.

“Mobile calling was sold on convenience, not on quality of experience or quality of the phone call,” said Doug Mohney, editor-in-chief of HD Voice News, an online publication dedicated to the topic. “That was the unspoken pact between consumers and wireless carriers back in the day. Today things have changed. The novelty of making a call anywhere has worn off if I can’t understand what you are saying.”

On top of that, voice-enabled systems like Siri, Google Now and the new Cortana speech assistant built into Windows Phone all rely on voice commands, and those commands get sent to a server for processing - the equivalent of a phone call. If the sound isn’t good, Siri can’t understand you, and you become that person yelling at your phone in the privacy of your home.

The same goes for automated call centres. Mobile carriers are also under pressure from calling options like Skype or Google Voice. Skype already supports wideband HD voice frequencies and can sound amazing over a good connection.

If you’ve got a 4G phone, you could use Skype for calling and have a better experience than a standard call. And Microsoft, which owns Skype, has integrated it into the dial pad in Windows 8.1, so any Windows Phone can skip carrier calling completely.

A Skype call uses your phone’s data plan instead of voice minutes, and carriers don’t really want that, Mohney said. They want to control the way voice and data are used on their networks, and, of course, they won’t want their calling services to be irrelevant.
And, said Hutton of the GSMA, better call quality makes customers happy.

“If you as an operator are offering HD voice and your competitors aren’t, the level of service you’re offering is much higher,” he said.

Well, obviously. But it’s worth noting that the GSMA website lists HD voice as one of the pillars of its “Network 2020 program.”

Texting it is.