US Cellular

Crystal-clear cell phone calls are coming. Really.

February 22, 2011: 2:00 PM ET

Peter Santos, the CEO of Audience Inc., says high-definition cellular service is about to take off.

Top of cellular telephone tower

The top of a current cell phone tower. Image via Wikipedia

Peter Santos comes across as a pretty mild-mannered executive, until he starts trying to come up with a metaphor for how crummy today's cellular phones sound relative to how good he knows they could sound.  "What we have in voice today is a 13-inch black-and-white TV set.  We have an opportunity to have a 60-inch set with 1080p high-definition," he says, his voice rising with a mixture of frustration and excitement. "It's within our grasp."

For seven years Santos has run Audience Inc, a chip-maker that specializes in translating the human voice into digital bits and back to voice again without garbling the conversation. Audience chips are now in over 40 million mobile phones, mainly to help to filter out the background noise. (That way, a bus going by doesn't drown out your conversation.)  Along the way Santos has learned a lot about why cell phones calls sound so bad to the human ear.

While noise suppression helps, there's only so much Santos has been able to do given limitations of today's cellular networks.  Those networks have two glaring quality flaws.  They're slow, adding a noticeable lag between when one caller talks and the other hears their words, leading to overlapping talk. They are also short on capacity, encouraging wireless carriers to smoosh phone calls into tiny digital streams and in the process lose all the little audio nuances that make a conversation sound lifelike. More

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