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Walkthrough Wednesdays

Hearing is Understanding


It's all about high-def.

In case you haven't noticed, high-definition (aka high-def or HD) is everywhere. Nearly every television in an electronics store is high-def. Television shows are routinely broadcast in high-def. Many cable television channels are supporting high def versions, from NBC and CBS to the Sci-Fi channel and the Cartoon Network. The cable operators and satellite television providers are in an all-out war about who has more high-def content. Online videos are moving to high-def. Trailers on are in high def. Indeed, high-def has become synonymous with "high quality", and the term has now come into common usage outside of video. We now have high-def radio. Speaker systems can be bought with the high-def label. Everyone wants the high-def experience.

The telecom industry is no exception. The newest buzz-word is "high def voice", which refers to voice signals that are encoded over a wider range of the audible spectrum, producing a higher-fidelity, more life-like sound. High definition voice is also (and more commonly) called wideband voice. The human ear can perceive sound in the frequency range of 20Hz – 20 KHz. However, researchers long ago discovered that most human speech occurs within the first 4 KHz, and this range is called narrowband voice. Indeed, the entirety of the public switched telephone network was built around this key observation. In order to convey a signal whose frequency is limited to 4 KHz, it must be digitized at a rate of 8000 samples per second. Using 8 bits for each sample, we arrive at the ubiquitous 64 Kbps, the build-block transmission rate of all digital telephony.

Though most of speech occurs within the first 4 KHz, not all speech occurs within this range. The upper ranges provide a crispness and clarity that is missing when only the narrowband portion is conveyed. If you haven't already had a wideband voice experience - you should. Visit, which has quick links that allow you to listen to the same audio sample encoded using narrowband codecs and a wideband one. The difference is startling. Indeed, I have likened the experience to the first time I saw a high-definition television show. Up to that moment, I thought that regular television was pretty good. Once I saw high-definition TV, I realized just how bad regular TV was, and I couldn't go back. High definition voice is like that.

But what does all of this mean for an enterprise? Does HD voice really matter? What can it do to help improve the bottom line? Where HD voice shines - and where it truly shows its value - are in communications between businesses. Inter-company communications, as I argued in my last blog post, are fundamentally higher value than intra-company communications. They are less frequent, they are less open, and they are an essential part of any modern business process. Voice is the most common and most important part of inter-company collaboration, and high-definition voice directly improves its value. Indeed, it has three principal benefits:

1. International Calls Made Easier. It is an unfortunate but real aspect of human nature that a person has an easier time comprehending speech that is spoken with their own accent, than speech spoken with a foreign one. When communicating with partners in other countries, it can be a real challenge to understand what those partners are saying. You will find that you often have to ask them to repeat themselves, or have someone else with a different accent repeat a comment. This results in frustration on both sides of the conversation. It also produces fatigue, especially in longer conversations. The increased level of attention you must use in order to understand tires you out more quickly. The combination of frustration and fatigue leads to weaker relationships. No one wants to have regular meetings and interactions with someone that they struggle to understand. That, in turn, will eventually result in lost business.

However, comprehension of foreign accents is greatly improved when high definition codecs are used. The additional nuances present in the higher frequency bands bring additional clarity that can reduce the need to ask someone to repeat themselves. That can reduce frustration and fatigue. If you make it easier to work with partners in other countries, it will ultimately help you win more business there. It's as simple as that.

2. Faster Conversations. Because high definition voice is crisper and clearer, in general people will need to repeat themselves less often than when narrowband voice is used. In addition, people tend to speak faster in environments where they know they will be understood (for example, a 1-1 in-person conversation) than they will in environments where they are concerned they won't be (such as presenting a new product to a large audience of mixed nationalities). This tends to be self-adapting; as users are asked to repeat themselves or begin to sense that they are not being understood, they tend to slow down. Because of this, a conversation that is done using high definition voice may actually complete in a shorter duration of time than the same conversation held using narrowband voice. Even if the savings is small, it can add up across a large enterprise. If 30 seconds were recovered from one out of every five conversations that each employee has (assuming 3 long conversations a day), a company with 1000 employees would save over $27,000 per year!

3. Nuances. The meaning of speech is not just about the words that are spoken - they are also about how they are spoken. Indeed, the same words can have almost completely different meanings depending on how they are said. In addition, emotions are often conveyed in the subtle nuances of speech. Those emotions can be critical to truly understanding what the other person is saying. That, in turn, is essential for making good decisions. This is especially important for inter-company communications, where a few brief meetings is all you may have in order to make a decision on a product or partner. High definition voice can help you make more informed decisions.

Voice is the cornerstone of how people interact with each other, and it is the foundation upon which companies build relationships with each other. Making the most out of voice communications is essential. High definition voice can directly improve the bottom line by improving inter-company communications across international boundaries. It can make calls proceed more quickly, saving time. Finally, it can convey subtle nuances of speech that are essential to comprehension. If we all agree how important it is to watch that football game in high-definition, isn't it also important for your business conversations to be high-def too?

After all, its all about high-def.

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