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The Importance of Voice Quality
The Importance of Voice Quality

Anytime, anywhere calling sounds great, but until voice quality is improved, and background noise minimized, mobile users will not want to stay "on the line."

The promise has seemed simple: mobile phone subscribers should be able to make or take calls anytime, anywhere. That's the promise wireless service providers have been making for years. Unfortunately, they're only addressing one part of the equation - network coverage.

Meanwhile, they're losing money by the minute for calls that are shortened because of poor voice quality or noise common in mobile users' environments - when noise drowns out a conversation, they simply end the call as quickly as possible. Advanced voice enhancement systems are needed to ensure that customers enjoy a superior quality calling experience, every time.

Take Maria for example. Maria is a nanny for a large family in the Austrian Alps. She has a wireless phone and constantly has difficulty making calls. Despite their image as a peaceful setting, the Alps are pulsing with noise. The hills, in fact, are alive with the sound of music.

Imagine Maria on that hilltop trying to make a simple call with seven kids dressed in drapery behind her singing, "Doe a deer, a female deer...." It isn't easy; either she has to scream into her wireless phone or scream at the kids to quiet down (which is a career-limiting move for Maria). It's nearly impossible to have a normal mobile phone conversation while in a noisy environment like hills alive with the sound of music.

Or consider the busy salesperson traveling through loud, bustling airports, or a soccer mom driving half a dozen kids in a minivan with a TV, radio, and GameBoy blaring away. They all have a problem like Maria's. Wireless coverage doesn't mean a thing if people can't hear what's being said, or have to constantly apologize for the noise in the background.

The carrier community should sit up and take notice. Not only are they losing money with shortened calls, but they're also missing revenue opportunities for calls never made or calls that don't turn out the way they're supposed to. It's fairly obvious that calls will be shorter if the callers can't hear each other. And worse, some wireless calls won't be made at all - calls that mean added value and revenue for the carrier, like conference calls. After all, if everyone has to be in a soundproof booth-type environment to be on a conference call, they'll be making those calls not from the road but from their desk - even if that sacrifices convenience.

Voice Gaining in Importance
Another facet driving voice quality's importance is the growing pervasiveness of voice recognition. The Kelsey Group, a market research firm, has projected that worldwide spending on voice recognition will reach $41 billion by 2005, and U.S. and European spending on telematics alone will exceed $6.4 billion by 2006. These telematic services can provide Maria, our friend in sales, or the soccer mom with driving directions, emergency roadside assistance, personalized news, sports and weather information, as well as access to e-mail and other productivity tools through voice-enabled devices in their automobiles. But if the voice recognition system can't understand the users' commands, users will not get the information they need, and will give up trying. Wireless carriers unable to minimize background noise will lose their piece of that $41-billion Bavarian cream pie.

In addition, legislatures around the world concerned about the safety issues caused by distracted drivers are requiring wireless devices to have speech-driven enhanced services. In North America alone, 70% of all wireless phone calls originate from automobiles; 39 U.S. states have pending laws limiting handheld wireless phone use in automobiles; England, Italy, Israel, Japan, and 20 other countries have already outlawed the same. So people will have to make and receive calls using their voice. But unless the windows are rolled up, and there's no traffic, and the radio is off, the chance of the voice recognition systems understanding what they're asking the phone to do is minimal. Obviously, government mandates are making clear calls a necessity.

As wireless phones become a more constant extension of people's lives, mobile consumers will be placing more calls to and from a wider range of environments. Whether from a noisy hilltop in the Alps or a street corner in New York City, consumers are forced to desperately scream above the noise. And with digital networks, the problem is further compounded by vocoding causing users' voices to "distort" at times - not a bad quality for a singing nanny, but not for the salesperson wanting to make a good impression.

If you want a technical expert's view of voice quality, electrical engineer David Nahamoo, manager of Human Language Technologies at IBM Research, says the most pressing problem in speech recognition is noise, which can prevent a machine from interpreting speech.

Fortunately, carriers are in a position today to address the issues of mobile voice quality. They can ensure that their network has a voice enhancement system with the capabilities necessary to compensate for the noisiest of mobile call settings - moving automobiles, train stations, subways, crowded restaurants, or seven charming children demonstrating their talent for making music. With the right system in place, they can offer a mobile phone experience as if it's taking place in a soundproof booth, even if their subscriber is in the middle of a construction zone. While some products remove noise by decreasing the overall signal level, this can unfortunately also reduce speech volume.

Advanced Voice Enhancement
The most advanced voice enhancement systems on the market today adapt to the specific call characteristics by adjusting the speech to appropriate listening levels, and readjusting dynamically throughout the call regardless of background noise. When the jackhammer starts, the mobile user continues to hear normally throughout the conversation without searching for the handset volume buttons or sticking a finger in the other ear.

The person on the other end doesn't hear the jackhammer, and the mobile phone user's voice is automatically amplified to compensate for the background noise so that not a word is lost to the listener. And the right voice enhancement system doesn't stop there - it also distinguishes between loud signals and soft signals to keep conversational tones smooth and speech easy to hear, resulting in no yelling and no sudden booms in sound to alarm the user.

Perhaps service providers have focused on only one side of the voice quality equation because they didn't know there are solutions for not just making the call experience a little better, but for completely changing the user experience. These voice quality enhancements can help service providers achieve their major objectives - decrease churn, increase revenues per user, maximize their network ROI, and compete with landline providers to become the primary phone source for consumers. While many carriers have focused on increasing network coverage, they've failed to capitalize on the value of voice quality enhancements. It is significantly less expensive to improve a completely covered area's voice quality than to build new network coverage.

Better Voice Quality Means Increased Revenues
According to Forrester Research, networks with superior voice quality have higher average call lengths. Customers increase their talk time because of enhanced voice quality and that clearly equates to increased revenues. Satisfied customers are also a lot less likely to abandon their present carrier, particularly as the market matures and price means less than quality. In fact, a recent UK consumer survey confirms that most people would in fact switch providers to be assured of consistently having superior voice quality.

AT&T Voice Quality Labs performed a very telling study. They compared two systems in a similar environment -- one had voice quality enhancements, and one did not. Not surprisingly, voice enhancement users placed in a typical noisy street environment tended to talk as much as 20% longer than when the voice enhancement system wasn't in operation.

Voice quality enhancements are immediately obvious to consumers, simple to implement, and they maximize the benefits of network coverage investments. Increasing network coverage is an expensive, time-consuming process with a very long-term return on investment, whereas adding echo cancellation and voice quality enhancements are an inexpensive way to realize nearly immediate returns.

If the wireless industry wants to solve a problem like Maria's, it will need to look to the latest voice enhancement technology to address a few of the customers' favorite things - such as calls that are clear no matter where users are or what they are doing. Stellar voice quality allows service providers to keep their anytime, anywhere promise.

About Clarke Ryan
Clarke Ryan is senior vice president and general manager, Voice
Enhancement Systems, at NMS Communications. He has more than 20
years of experience in the telecommunications business, specifically
with Lucent/AT&T Bell Labs.

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