The voice app experience is a crap shoot – we have proof!

voice experience
Image credit: Wang Shao Chun

Believe it or not, people still use their mobile devices to make voice calls, albeit mainly using voice apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype rather than the traditional phone network. But how’s the quality? It depends, but odds are if you’re using 3G in an emerging market, the voice app experience is pretty crap.

That’s according to a new report from Opensignal that measures the experience of OTT voice apps in 80 markets using a model it says is derived from the ITU-based approach for quantifying overall voice call quality with a series of calibrated technical parameters. The scoring system from 0 to 100 rates anything above a score of 74 as “acceptable”.

voice experience
Image credit: Opensignal, The State of Mobile Voice App Experience, October 2019

The results found that a little over half of the 80 markets covered (44) managed to eke out an “acceptable” rating, but only 19 made it into the “good” bracket (barely), and no one qualified for the two categories above that.

According to Opensignal, the results indicate a pretty clear divide between more mature markets, fast growing ones and developing markets:

None of the European markets we analyzed scored less than an Acceptable ranking, while the vast majority of the African and Middle Eastern nations rated Poor or lower. This pattern was mirrored in the Americas, where the U.S. and Canada ranked Acceptable, while barely a third of the Latin American markets (including Brazil) we analyzed achieved this rating.

In Asia-Pacific, the results covered a broader spectrum from “Good” to “Unintelligible”, but mature markets like Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan made it into the ‘Good” voice quality bracket, while developing markets like India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Cambodia ranked either “Poor” or worse.

As one might expect, one factor in voice app quality is whether it takes place on a 4G network or a 3G network, with the latter producing the lower quality experience. In over two-thirds of the markets analyzed, the 3G voice app experience generally scored a “Poor” rating or worse.

That said, 4G alone is no guarantee of quality – many markets who ranked “Poor” or worse overall also have 4G networks. That said, even for the markets in the “Poor” quality bracket, the quality on 4G was typically still better than 3G.

Also, the report says, while it might be rare to have a good OTT voice call on a 3G network, it’s not impossible – nine countries including Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland achieved “Acceptable” rankings with 3G. In fact, Hong Kong’s 4G voice quality score was only 1.4 points higher than 3G.

It’s worth noting that “acceptable” is something of a loaded term in the sense that mobile users have typically learned to settle for poorer quality voice over the years.

As people my age and above will tell you, the traditional base quality standard for acceptable fixed line voice quality is (or used to be) 64 kbps of bandwidth. In the days of 2G and 3G, operators had to balance voice quality with cell capacity, which meant finding ways to jam as many calls onto a cell site as possible – the result being that voice codecs typically worked with bandwidth levels as low as 8 kbps.

The sound quality wasn’t good, but mobile users tended to say in surveys at the time that the convenience of mobility was worth the trade-off. As long as you could understand enough of what the caller was saying to piece it all together, the quality was “acceptable”.

The same seems to be true of OTT voice apps, which have always promised FM or CD voice quality, but the fidelity is sometimes offset by constant jitter, buffering and other technical terms for those times when the caller’s voice comes through as a strangled metallic wail, or only every fourth word gets through cleanly.

On the other hand, it’s free.

Still, it’s ironic that in the days where cellcos offer unlimited voice minutes, and the quality of mobile voice is actually better today thanks to VoLTE and better noise cancellation, users still prefer voice apps where quality is a crap shoot.

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