Chris Kranky

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The hunt for better quality

Chris KoehnckeChris Koehncke

daffyI have to applaud Google’s near dictator like attitude about WebRTC. It will work as long as they are deciding to the better of the overall community. Helpful is that daddy Google has left their check book on the counter and seem willing to spend big $$$ to make problems go away. We should all take advantage of this free ride while it lasts

To wit is the topic of codec selection. I’m not talking about the bigger video argument about VP8 and H.264 which effectively pits the entire telecom and movie industry against Google (I’d still bet on Google though). I’m talking about the lowly voice codec.

Google (and their happy sidekick Mozilla) have decreed that their browsers will natively support G.711 and Opus. Opus is the Dr. Bronner’s shampoo of audio codecs, it can do anything and do it well. I don’t know about you, but the quality of most of my phone calls suck, conference calls are even worse. This is the result of most phone calls being transcoded 8 different ways to Sunday as it bounces along it’s way.  Big surprise – I barely pay attention and can’t wait for the wrap-up (and hang up).

Opus provides a high definition audio experience, it’s variable in bandwidth usage, flexible in that it has application beyond simple voice, smart in that it knows that IP networks periodically have issues. Best of all Opus is FREE open source. Google’s buildings full of lawyers and checkbook have seen to that. Hooray!

The mobile industry busy constructing a moat around their castle has raised a flag about HD voice as well and offered up AMR-WB (where the WB means wideband). AMR-WB has some similar attributes to Opus and lots of comparison websites out there.  The plan is for AMR-WB (and AMR non-wideband) to be the default codecs for voice on mobile devices.

Unfortunately, AMR-WB is not free, you have to license it from a tiny Montreal company called Voiceage. It’s easy to sign-up, you send them a check for $6,500 (US not Canadian – funny how they don’t like to take their own money) and promise to pay them a minimum of $10,000 a year in royalties. The per unit royalty starts at about $1 a unit.

Voiceage is merely the henchmen for the AMR-WB patent pool. The real folks behind the scene are Nokia, Ericsson and France Telecom. Seeing a trend here?

Clearly this type of licensing arrangement is something only the big boys can deal with. No little start-up (2 guys and a pick-up truck) have the financial ability to license this stuff from Voiceage. Don’t wanna get a license? Voiceage is not shy about suing. Last year, they sued Real Networks for $25 million (US) for using AMR-WB in the Realplayer for just over a year.

Telco executives are continually tell me and their employees they need to be more Internet savvy, innovative and faster to market. But every action they take continues to insulate themselves from the real world. If they seriously want to compete, they should make AMR-WB an open-source codec for the benefit of all and let the best man win. The licensing fees can’t be all that significant and the impact to creativity is huge. Failing this, I suspect there will be a lot of AMR-WB to free codec transcoding requirements and there goes the quality of my voice call.

I’m glad Google is hanging tough on the voice codec selection, it’s going to be a painful ride but in the interest of better quality, failing a move by the telco industry, I’ll continue to bet on Google.