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HD VoIP aids communications in a global economy, but by how much?

Vendors say a global economy drives the need for HD VoIP in multinational companies, as poor call quality exacerbates the ability to understand a colleague's foreign accent.

A muffled phone call can be frustrating for users on both ends of the call, whether they're straining to understand someone or frequently being asked to repeat themselves. Introduce a caller who speaks with a thick accent and communications can break down completely.  Some Voice over IP (VoIP) vendors argue that the clarity of high-definition (HD) VoIP can help users in a global economy to communicate with colleagues and partners who hail from different parts of the globe and speak each other's native tongues with varying degrees of fluency. 

Siemens Enterprise Communications is positioning and rebranding its support of G.722, a standardized HD VoIP codec that transmits at 7 KHz, partly around the need for clearer, higher-quality audio in an increasingly globalized workforce.

"When people are trying to speak [a foreign] language in their own accent, it might be difficult for people [who are native speakers] to comprehend them ... and when you have a poor call transmission, it makes it much more challenging," said Susan Ericke, senior marketing manager at Siemens. "There could be mission-critical information in [a call] that's missed because someone didn't understand or didn't want to ask [the speaker] to repeat themselves."

We certainly have experienced the challenge of understanding non-native speakers from all sides and in several languages, but I don't believe we have ever attributed it to VoIP quality.

Mike Shisko
Director of IT, Hitachi Consulting

Siemens recently announced a low-end, HD VoIP-capable SIP phone, OpenStage 5, and rebranded its existing support for G.722 across all of its IP phones under the trademark AudioPresence HD. Ericke admitted that AudioPresence does not refer to any particular software or product but instead is intended to reflect the "immersive quality" of HD VoIP on Siemens' phones, much like video conferencing vendors have branded their immersive HD video systems as telepresence products.

HD VoIP, also called wideband audio, is an umbrella term for a collection of standardized and proprietary voice codecs that use less compression than legacy narrowband codecs to provide higher-fidelity audio and more resilient VoIP traffic.

Does HD VoIP make accents any easier to understand?

Not everyone is convinced that HD VoIP can resolve the awkward and frustrating communications among users who don't speak each other's native language flawlessly. 

"We certainly have experienced the challenge of understanding non-native speakers from all sides and in several languages, but I don't believe we have ever attributed it to VoIP quality," said Mike Shisko, director of IT at Hitachi Consulting Corp., the Dallas-based consulting arm of Japanese tech conglomerate Hitachi Ltd. "I can say from personal experience that the challenge with understanding other language speakers is no worse—and no better—when in person versus by phone."

Multinational companies face many non-technical hurdles to communication that are beyond a unified communications (UC) manager's control—cultural issues, time zone differences and language barriers—according to Randel Maestre, global head and senior director of industry solutions at Polycom. But HD VoIP returns some control to UC pros by enabling them to ensure that users hear each other as clearly as possible, he said.

"In English speech, while most vowels can be clearly understood at 3 KHz, consonants require higher frequencies to be clear. To understand the difference between 'f' and 's' for instance, [you need] frequencies above 3 KHz," Maestre said. "Without HD voice ... the statement, 'The products are sailing through the QA process' could easily be misinterpreted as, 'The products are failing through the QA process.'"

HD VoIP's higher-fidelity audio also becomes critical for understanding tonal languages, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, he said.    

"The slightest differences in voice inflections or word pronunciations can result in misunderstandings and problems," Maestre said. "The word 'ma' in Chinese, for example, can have four different meanings depending on the pitch or inflection used by the speaker."

However, when Shisko traveled to India and China last year to work with his IT counterparts at two companies that Hitachi Consulting had recently acquired, he struggled to communicate with his new colleagues in person. It wasn't because he couldn't hear them. Many spoke heavily-accented English or used a different pattern of speech than what's typical of American English.

"It was exhausting paying attention to make sure I understood everything that was being said, and ... I don't think it had anything to do with the clarity of [the speaker]. I could hear them perfectly fine," Shisko said. "It is more difficult over the phone—no matter how well you can hear them—to grasp what's being said [by a non-native speaker, as opposed to meeting] in-person, but I don't know that [VoIP quality matters] unless you can't hear them at all."

Shisko has little interest in evaluating HD VoIP, noting that his only call quality problem over the years was due to a faulty virtual private network (VPN) appliance that had introduced so much jitter that the phones became unusable. Instead, he is focusing his UC investments on HD video conferencing, contending that HD quality has a far greater impact on the user experience in video than in voice.     

"The quality of [voice] does make a difference, but only up to a point—and better-than-OK is overkill from a voice-only perspective," Shisko said. "Unless we've been missing a whole lot in the 80 years of telephones, it seems to be doing just fine—aside from the geek in us that would like to [hear] it and try it out. But I don't think [HD VoIP] is necessary."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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