Thursday, 31 December 2009

Orange hopes for halo effect from launching HD voice

Orange UK has announced that it will be launching high definition (HD) voice, using the Wideband Adaptive Multi-Rade (WB-AMR) codec. Full nationwide roll-out will follow in 2010, as will compatible devices. Press release here.

Mobile operators have been flirting with high quality voice services for years but I'm healthily sceptical about demand. Clearly, with 70%+ of revenue coming from voice, Orange and other operators need to explore ways to differentiate that service. But HD voice isn't the way to do it. Users won't pay more for it and mobile operators should be looking at reducing, not increasing, the load on their networks.

The migration of traffic from traditional fixed line, where quality is best, to mobile and VoIP services (such as Skype) shows that sound quality is really a fairly minor issue for most users. Price and convenience are much more important. It's also interesting that having perfect clarity on telephone calls has proven to actually be disconcerting for users. If lines are too quiet, network operators insert artificial background noise (Comfort Noise Insertion) when the other party is not speaking so the caller knows they haven't hung up.

So if no-one cares and no-one's going to pay, why do this? PR. This is surely another way for Orange to continue banging on about the superiority of their network. Whether or not their network is superior (and for the average punter it's completely opaque) it's vitally important to have a message that yours is best. The concept of HD is linked to superior user experience, so this announcement is all about the halo effect. Surely Orange isn't expecting anyone to pay extra to take HD voice. In a world where no-one knows who has the best network, but network superiority is a good differentiator, it's critical to find ways to communicate how much better your network is. Being cynical for a moment, perhaps HD voice is one way of doing that.

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