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Kai Ryssdal: Think back to the first iPod you got compared to the one you might be using right now. Or your laptop. How many improvements can you count? How many tweaks to make it better?
Now, think about your phone. Yes, you can use it to do a lot more than just talk nowadays. But once that sound leaves your lips, phone companies are using same technology to get it where it's going as they did 80 years ago, even though, as Marketplace's Janet Babin reports, we know how to make it better.
Janet Babin: The phone is a staple of modern life, and yet...
Babin on phone: Hi Daniel, can you hear me?
It's imperfect. The dropped calls, the poor sound quality can be maddening. That was me trying to connect by cell with telecom entrepreneur Daniel Berninger.
Berninger says sound quality on smart phones is just as bad as on your cheapest handset. To illustrate, Berninger imagined a conversation between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama.
Daniel Berninger: ...And he says, "I want to be a force for peace," and President Sarkozy thought he said, "I want to be a source for cheese."
Did you catch that? Here's Berninger saying the same key phrase -- this time, on a phone that uses high-definition voice quality:
Berninger: I want to be a force for peace. I want to be a source for cheese.
Berninger says telecommunications firms have ignored sound quality. Instead, they've chased mobile apps and connectivity. But that strategy may have backfired. Research out last spring from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that text messaging is now the primary way teens reach their friends. Voice minutes logged on cell phones have shrunk for several years in a row.
Berninger: The younger generation has really embraced texting via their cell phones, because it's not a lot of fun to have a conversation over a cell phone where the voice quality is just terrible.
And it's a lot easier to sneak a text during sixth period algebra.
HD Voice sounds better, because it uses a greater frequency range than old school phones. Most people have never heard of it, because U.S. companies don't have much incentive to let us in on the HD secret.
Tom Lemaire is with Orange-France Telecom Group.
Tom Lemaire: In the U.S., there hasn't been a compelling reason for service providers on the competitive side to do so. It's still something that has a cost for the service provider to deploy.
You can get HD right now in Europe. Orange-France recently began offering HD Voice service for mobile users in six countries. So far just a fraction of customers use it. But Lemaire expects HD Voice will spread rapidly. Where available, Orange offers the voice quality upgrade free to customers with 3G cell phones.
Lemaire: HD Voice is the main way for us to bring innovation and bring an enhanced experience on our core service, which is voice.
For years, U.S. telecoms ignored the HD upgrade because of cost. Jeff Rodman with business conferencing firm Polycom says they won't have that excuse much longer.
Jeff Rodman: Just over the last 10 years, the cost of adding HD capability, of increasing a telephone's performance from narrow band to HD has plunged.
Rodman says networks can now accommodate HD Voice with a few quick fix software updates. But with a whole generation now more comfortable texting than voice calling, has the telecom industry missed its chance to improve the phone call? Daniel Berninger doesn't think so.
Berninger: Voice is the number one, top primo way to communicate and it has been for about 100,000 years.
While HD Voice will improve sound quality, it won't address mobile's other issues -- all the dropped calls...
Sound of subway
And you still won't be able to use your cell on the subway.
In New York, I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.