Calling is probably only a small percentage of what the average smartphone is used for today, but you would think that with all the advances in mobile tech, this still critical function would have gotten better too.
Connections are still spotty, voice quality often stinks, and you don't have to think back too far to remember the last time you had a call drop.
The IEEE's Spectrum magazine just published a good article on the subject, "All smart, no phone: Cellular carriers are dragging their heels over technology to improve voice quality," that identifies the core problems and the technology fixes that can help.
But just to be clear, there really is a problem. Cell phones are lousy for voice calling. The magazine reports:
Even in the best conditions, including a quiet environment and a strong wireless signal, users consistently rate voice quality lower on a cellphone than on a landline. Weaken the cellular link or add background noise, such as from wind or street traffic, and callers' opinions of the experience drop dramatically.
For example, engineers at Nokia found that when they compressed voice data to 5.15 kilobits per second, which cellphones do automatically when a tower connection is weak, user ratings fell from "good" to "fair." When the engineers decoded and then recompressed the data, which happens when a call travels through the backbone network to another cellphone, the ratings dipped lower still.
The problems, IEEE Spectrum reports, include handset design (lousy microphones), lack of sophisticated noise canceling tech, long distances to the closest towers, and the need to transcode calls to accommodate different compression rates used by the various systems needed to complete a call.
Two technologies would go a long way in helping to resolve the problem, IEEE Spectrum says: HD voice, which captures more of the audio frequencies in the human voice; and Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which is VoIP for the cellular world, and would do away with the transcoding mess.
The key issue: Service providers would have to increase their investments in these and other technologies to improve voice calling quality at a time when customers seem to put a higher priority on the other functions of their smartphones.
How likely is that?
This story, "Why do cell phones still suck for calling?" was originally published by Network World.