Orange UK is upping the quality of voice calls over the next year, branding the development "HD Voice" in the ongoing search for market differentiation.
The improvements come with use of Wideband Adaptive Multi-Rate (WB-AMR) as a voice codec, which has been around for a while but never deployed. The common wisdom has been that customers won't pay for additional quality and they will need new handsets, a clutch of which Orange plans to launch over the next 12 months.
While data rates have soared over recent years the quality of a voice call hasn't improved since the first GSM call back in 1991. There was an opportunity to improve the quality when Adaptive Multi-Rate was introduced ten years ago, but operators took the practical option of carrying more calls rather than increasing the quality.
Existing call quality is good enough for most European languages. Speakers of more-tonal languages often want more quality but most of us can convey meaning over a mobile phone so why bother enhancing the quality?
It seems that conveying meaning isn't as important as it used to be - most mobile calls these days are emotional affairs where the exchange of information is secondary to the act of being in touch, which makes detection of tonal variations more important.
At least that's what Orange hopes. A more cynical view would suggest that it's a desperate attempt by the company to differentiate "signature" handsets, having failed to get customers using MegaSIMs or custom widgets, and that "HD Voice" is just an impressive-looking tag to put on branded phones. ®
Implementing WB-AMR on the network will cost money - every base station will need to support it - but that's probably a software upgrade, so not hugely expensive. If Orange gets any traction then it won't be long before all the operators follow suit. And it's about the quality of voice calling on mobile phones improved - it's what they're for after all.