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HD voice value proposition: Just try using an HD phone

As high-definition phones become more prevalent in the catalogs of enterprise phone manufacturers, HD voice adoption is becoming inevitable. Enterprises are quickly hearing the value, and the prices are coming down, too.

Most enterprises are still wrapping their minds around high-definition (HD) voice, but its value rapidly becomes apparent to users who are equipped with HD phones. As vendors increase the number of HD-capable phones in their catalogs, pretty soon everyone will be using the technology.

"We didn't particularly look for HD voice," said Ryan Van Laeys, technology facilitator at Burlington County Special Services School District in New Jersey. "But once they demoed it for us, it just made sense."

Van Laeys' school district migrated this summer from a legacy Avaya TDM phone system to a managed services IP telephony system from Whaleback Systems. One of the prime motivations behind the upgrade to an IP PBX was the school district's desire to adopt unified messaging, with voicemails being transported into email inboxes, he said. The district also wanted administrative staff to have more robust desk phones that were capable of managing multiple lines on a single phone.

Administrative staffers were equipped with Polycom SoundPoint IP 550s phones, which feature HD voice. The rest of the district's employees received SoundPoint IP 320s and 330s, which are standard-definition phones. Conference rooms were also equipped with HD phones. Van Laeys said the HD phone experience has delivered added value to the district's phone system.

"We do a lot of intra-district conference calls, and if you have someone on a speaker phone, the clarity of the call is second to none," he said. "It really helps. It's just a lot clearer than what we've had in the past."

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Jeffrey Rodman, CTO and founder of Polycom, said the road to adoption for HD voice has been pretty wide open since enterprises began migrating to voice over IP (VoIP).

"Once you've done that, you're pretty much ready for high-definition voice," Rodman said. "It's just data. It's just another codec. The data bandwidth required for the wideband audio connection for HD voice today is very comparable to what you need for narrow band."

The primary codec for HD voice, G.722, has become much more efficient over the years, Rodman said. The price of processing power has also dropped, making it an economic proposition to produce phones that can handle HD voice. Three years ago, an HD phone definitely came at a premium, he said. But today, the prices have dropped so that an HD phone is only $100 or $200 more than a standard-definition phone.

"Moore's Law has affected all of this," he said. "There's enough processing power even in middle-of-the-road desktop phones so that the incremental burden for [HD voice] as opposed to narrow band has pretty much disappeared."

Rudimentary HD voice is easy to achieve. Two HD phones simply need to connect to each other over an IP network. The PBX will need a small software tweak in order to understand which phones on the network are HD phones and connect them properly. However, enterprises may want more HD voice features and a wider deployment of HD phones, which could require some additional hardware and software investment within the PBX.

"You'll often want to do more things than just connect phone calls," Rodman said. "You might want to do high-definition bridging and voicemail, and those things represent incremental [upgrades] to the PBX. The other piece is that you may want to be able to dial out to people in other companies. This is where the industry is just now coming along, forming peering relationships of networks and beginning to add HD voice capability so they can dial from one place to another. We are in a phase of connecting the islands, so to speak, where the islands are individual enterprises or individual service providers that can speak HD voice within themselves."

Rodman said that by the end of the year, all of Polycom's phones will be HD voice-capable. Other vendors, Cisco in particular, also have a broad catalog of HD phones available. It's only a matter of time before every enterprise phone on the market is an HD phone. They'll still be standard-definition capable as well, but HD voice will be within every company's reach sooner or later.

Andor Izsak has decided that his company will buy nothing but HD phones from now on. The director of IT for Euphonix, a Mountain View, Calif., manufacturer of mixing consoles and controllers for the music and film industries, Izsak said his company deployed HD phones from Polycom to a large number of employees more than a year ago when it upgraded to a 3CX IP PBX.

"We replaced an aging analog phone system," he said. "We decided since our company was a professional audio company, it was important for me to get the best possible sound quality. That set up the precedent for me to get Polycom headsets for everyone. At first, because of cost constraints, I looked at getting a mixture of lower-end [standard- definition] models for general-purpose use like lobbies and for people who don't have to represent the company over the phone. And for everyone else in marketing and sales and the executives, we went with the more expensive [HD phones]."

A few days ago, his company decided that it would stop buying standard-definition phones and go exclusively with HD phones.

"Just being able to have a conversation where you understand every single word [makes it worthwhile]," Izsak said. "The difference is really amazing. We think the HD models are so much better sounding -- with the 722 codec and the better transducer and things of that nature -- that we decided we're going to spend the extra money and buy the [HD phones] from now on."

For now, there's a premium for going with HD phones, he said. It's about an extra $100 per phone.

"It's not that significant," Izsak said. "Obviously, if you have many thousands of users, that might be a different picture."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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