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Have mobility and messaging trumped business voice communications?

The value of voice communications has not really changed, but telephony is no longer the hub of workplace communication, according to one telecom expert.

Quality voice communications is a basic expectation. But, at the same time, the idea of quality is subjective and...

depends on your experiences.

As enterprises consider moving along the collaboration spectrum from voice over IP to unified communications, issues around voice quality become more complicated, and some compromises may have to be made.

The builders of the PSTN always held up voice quality as a point of pride. For businesses, toll quality was the gold standard for decades. This view was reinforced by the poor quality from early iterations of cellular telephony, as well as VoIP, which relied on "best efforts" service over the public internet.

In the early days of these technologies, cellular was prohibitively expensive, and VoIP was viewed as a hobby technology for consumers. So, neither was taken seriously for business use.

Clearly, things have changed as these technologies matured, but other things have changed, as well. Digitization has supplanted almost every analog experience, and music portability has become more important than audio quality. These points may seem far removed from UC and voice communications, but hear me out.

Changing times and changing priorities

Audio quality matters far more for music than telephony. Prior to digitization and music portability, people cared about high fidelity. Recorded music was never portable and always listened to with intent -- not in the background while doing other things. The tradeoff is inferior audio quality, as music has become a personal earbud experience, barely-there ambience in public spaces.

The net result: Lower audio-quality standards in the consumer world have carried over into the voice communications space and workplace. VoIP quality generally still lags time-division multiplexing (TDM) -- and even with 4G or 5G, voice calls are a notch or two below VoIP.

Clearly, voice quality has been knocked off its perch atop the value chain.

However, over time, both consumers and businesses have accepted inferior voice quality as a fair trade for the cost savings and convenience of mobility. Clearly, voice quality has been knocked off its perch atop the value chain. When considering UC, it's fair to ask if the bar is set too low, or if it really has to be this way.

VoIP is actually engineered for superior quality compared to TDM. But, for most folks, the perception is the opposite. As good as toll-quality voice communications is, it only supports audio in the range of 300 Hz to 3.4 kHz. Until IP came along, there was nothing to compare this against, and nobody ever complained then about voice quality.

When optimized over an IP network, VoIP delivers a better-quality experience. When using IP-based codecs like G.722, the result is wideband audio -- also called HD -- where the frequency range is much wider, namely 50 Hz to 7 kHz. The difference is comparable to seeing HD TV for the first time after watching TV on a hulking Trinitron.

But theory and practice are two different things. We still have a long way to go for an all-IP network. And with such a large installed base of older phone systems, there is limited ability for endpoints to support HD voice.

The mobile world is even further behind, where the goal is to provide wideband coverage, but that remains years away. Plus, smartphones don't have much HD support, either. By that time, the issue may be moot, since voice is becoming a secondary application for mobile users.

The implications for unified communications

In today's workplace, voice has value when integrated with other applications.

So, are concerns about diminished voice quality a lost cause? Is it simply that digital natives don't care, or just don't know any better?

In the short term, I'd say these guesses are largely true, and it's unrealistic to expect HD quality across the board with UC. That will change for the better as the industry overcomes technical holdbacks -- just like they were from VoIP's early days, where network limitations were the root of the problems, rather than the underlying voice technology.

Furthermore, if poor voice quality continues to give you second thoughts about UC, some perspective is in order. Telephony is no longer the hub of workplace communication.

The longstanding virtues of real-time communication are losing primacy to the brutal efficiency of messaging, which takes place in near-real time. Business value is determined by where utility is the greatest -- and today, it's not with telephony, especially for those phones on the desk.

The value of voice has not really changed. But, increasingly, it has less to do with telephony, and is now just one of several applications that workers rely on to be productive. In today's workplace, voice communications has value when integrated with other applications, and if the quality isn't optimal, it's still good enough for where it's needed. And that's the context in which UC will really earn its keep in your business.

Next Steps

How to manage voice quality in Skype for Business

How businesses can improve VoIP quality of service

Why quality of service is so challenging for VoIP deployments

This was last published in March 2017

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