Here's a bit of trivia from the dusty archives of communication: The first high-definition television broadcast in America wasn't from New York or Los Angeles, it was from a CBS affiliate in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The date was July 23, 1996, and the station was WRAL-TV. On hand to witness the event were some 200 invited guests, according to the station's history page, who watched a broadcast operating at 100 kilowatts from a tower 1,736 feet above the ground. The high-definition age had arrived.
What does this history lesson have to do with the topic of this essay, which is the transition from copper wire telephone lines to next-generation, Internet-enabled communications networks? The answer will be music to your ears.
Improved voice communication is among the many benefits of upgrading our nation's networks to run solely on Internet Protocol.
For consumers, HD-quality voice will mean clearer connections. For innovators, it will open new avenues for apps and services. But HD-quality voice's biggest impact may be on the estimated 48 million adult Americans who currently have some form of hearing loss, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America, an increasing number of them being senior citizens.
The quality of your voice calls may sound fine today, especially if you still rely on landline phone service, but like the shift from standard-definition television to HD, the difference will be seismic. HD voice can help eliminate background noise, make it easier to recognize voices when more than one person is speaking, and distinguish between confusing sounds. For the hard of hearing, it can be the difference between missing most of a conversation and understanding every word.
But you don't have to take my word for it. GSMA, an association of mobile operators based in Europe, has an audio sample of what HD-quality voice will sound like on their website. All it takes is one listen and you know everything is about to change once again.
The introduction of HD voice could alter the ways that people with hearing loss communicate. Those who primarily use text messages or email will have access to a high-quality voice service more suited to their needs. It is estimated that one in three senior citizens suffers from hearing loss; for them, this technology could greatly diminish or eliminate the challenges of talking on the phone.
This is one benefit of the upgrade to IP networks that is rarely promoted. For most of us, if we think about the all-IP future at all, we think about things that are shiny -- new gadgets, new services, things we look forward to holding and using. Streaming video with no hiccups. Faster broadband. Tablets and smartphones even more powerful than the ones we're already carrying.
Those are certainly things worth getting excited about. But as the government and communications industry hammer out the details for how the IP transition should move forward -- details that already include test trials to make sure everyone stays connected, no matter where they live -- it's worth keeping in mind the positive effect the upgrade will have on those who currently face challenges using the voice service most of us take for granted. Men and women most in need of a high-quality, reliable connection will benefit greatly when IP enhances voice communication.
Just as HDTV opened our eyes to what the world could look like on a screen, the transition to Internet-enabled networks will revolutionize what we hear when we pick up the phone. That may not mean a lot to you, but for millions of Americans young and old it could mean all the difference in the world.
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