Market observers feel HD voice will have limited appeal, as voice quality is a network-driven issue, and needs to be addressed holistically.
The market has reacted cautiously to MTN's announcement that it is the first operator in SA to unveil adaptive multi-rate wideband (AMR-WB) technology – more commonly referred to as high-definition (HD) voice.
The operator says HD voice is available across its 3G network nationally, and MTN customers "can benefit from HD voice if both the devices they use support AMR-WB to run an HD voice active call".
He says the experience of changing from ordinary voice to HD voice is comparable to switching from standard-definition to high-definition television.
According to MTN, HD voice extends the frequency range of signals transmitted over the radio air interface, resulting in higher quality speech. "The range of the human voice extends from 80Hz to 14KHz, but traditional voiceband or narrowband telephone calls limit audio frequencies to the range of 300Hz to 3.4KHz.
"In comparison, AMR-WB technology extends the available audio frequency range to 50Hz to 7KHz, with the additional low-frequency range providing improved call naturalness, presence and comfort, and the higher range better sound differentiation and therefore higher call intelligibility."
However, market analysts seem less excited about the news, with some questioning whether AMR-WB technology would make any real difference to local consumers, or even change the game for MTN itself.
"What is it really going to change? Will it enhance the voice revenue stream? I doubt it," says Ovum analyst
He speculates the HD voice solution could likely see some uptake within the enterprise space, where voice quality could make a difference in terms of teleconferencing, for instance. "But voice services per se are not a problem in this country. I would say that operators should rather focus on more important issues, such as mobile broadband."
"But from a technology point of view, operators need to improve network quality in general. Thus some would argue that offering HD voice is not really addressing the basics of network quality in areas, but rather providing a more niche voice solution."
Neilson also agrees the technology would most likely sooner be adopted by enterprise customers, or people with special needs, who are hard of hearing, for instance. However, a limitation to adoption could be the requirement that users can only benefit from HD voice if both the devices they use support AMR-WB to run an HD voice active call.
World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck says MTN will most likely use the technology as an angle to retain customers, and notes voice quality is indeed an issue in SA. However, he adds, it is a network-driven problem that cannot be looked at in isolation.
"This could give MTN the edge in some way, but the overall solution to voice must be addressed in relation to overall network quality."
MTN also seems to acknowledge HD voice could most likely provide more benefits for enterprise customers, with Chetty saying: "The benefits of clear, high-quality voice communication are even more tangible for enterprise users, who have been quick to recognise the potential impact of HD voice in business-critical areas, such as conference calls and the fast-growing voice-recognition-services market, where better voice quality can lead to improved efficiency, reduced costs and a more productive working environment."
He says computer-based processes like voice recognition and speech-to-text could also benefit from HD voice, as it gives better accuracy.
MTN says the solution will not be available for the foreseeable future on its LTE and 2G network, as there are currently no voice calls on the new generation 4G network and very limited handset support on the 2G network, but as the technology and device ecosystem mature, this position could change.
"We're looking at HD voice, but don't have any specific plans at the moment in terms of implementation. There are a limited number of handsets in SA that can actually benefit from it, so it will probably be some time before this has any real impact on the market.
"I don't have a comprehensive list, but my understanding is that it's typically compatible with the higher-end smartphones. We're seeing good smartphone growth in SA, but for now the majority of handsets in use here are still either basic handsets or feature phones."
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