BT & Dolby HD Voice Partnership Offers Advantages, Challenges


BT is determined to capture market share in the audio conferencing market through its BT MeetMe with Dolby Voice product. Over the past month, I've received at least three invites to speak with BT and Dolby executives and have two different research papers provided by BT promoting the virtues of higher quality audio conferencing. The new MeetMe service has a number of advantages over traditional audio conferencing, but it is also building a walled garden of sorts with proprietary codecs and an initial exclusive relationship between BT and Dolby.   Will businesses forgo openness and pay a bit more for a higher quality audio experience?

I was on a BT MeetMe bridge earlier this week with BT CEO of Conferencing Howard Dickel along with Dolby Business Group  vice president of Communications Andrew Border and chief technology officer Mike Hollier.

Border said MeetMe's improved experience enables people to have a different sort of meeting, allowing easy participation without the "unnatural turn-taking" of existing conferencing services.

The voice quality on the bridge and online user interface were impressive and useful, even though I was dialed in via a narrowband PSTN phone connection rather than via an IP softclient. With a couple of clicks and some brief typing, the MeetMe bridge called my office number to connect me. Connected, I was able to see the identities of two of the four participations - already registered users within the MeetMe service - and caller ID-based phone numbers for the others.

A simple web page provides a "speaking" graphic icon to identify an active talker, a very useful feature regardless of the audio experience delivered. Participants connected via IP are able to talk at the same time and hear each other without drowning anyone out because the conversation is delivered in full duplex. Using stereo headphones, IP audio conferencing clients deliver the much heralded spatial audio experience, separating speakers via psychoacoustic techniques to enable clear audio differentiation.

Hollier emphasizes Dolby's technology is better because it eliminates the stop-and-go "walkie-talkie" flow present in current solutions. People can just speak and the audio delivered provides more information and cues of all participants. Conversations more naturally flow and there's much less fatigue because participants don't have to strain to understand speakers are saying. 

There's a lot of growth potential in the baseline service. Hollier indicated adding services such as the ability to collect, annotate, and categorize conference calls, is on a roadmap of improvements. Dolby has an advantage built into its system for processing voicing. Individual speakers are identified via the soft client and conference bridge in the process of spatially separating participants -- a significant boon for post-processing when it comes to text-to-speech transcripts and more sophisticated Hypervoice-style applications.

Currently, MeetMe requires stereo headphones and a client running on a PC to get the optimum quality from the service -- something a bit awkward if you have a room of people sitting around a traditional speakerphone. Support for Apple iOS and Android clients for mobile use has just started. In the second half of next year, Dolby will have a MeetMe conference room system to free up participants in one room from headphone cords.

While hardware awkwardness will be solved over the next year, I think the bigger issues for widespread usage of BT MeetMe are cost and the walled-garden nature of the service. BT executives have positioned MeetMe as potentially cheaper per minute than current services, because businesses won't have to pay for analog lines. But they haven't openly said how much per minute MeetMe will cost or presented a cost/benefit comparison between it and traditional narrowband-quality services. date, The enterprise community at large -- with some few exceptions -- has been price sensitive, opting for lower cost over higher quality HD voice-based options.

BT and Dolby have an exclusive agreement for MeetMe with Dolby Voice. The two have already invested fifteen months into working together and will continue to do so in the "foreseeable future." It's all well and good, but it appears unlikely that third-parties will be able to roll in value-added services in a rapid fashion since Dolby will control the pacing and introduction of new features in the near term. A third-party ecosystem could accelerate adoption and use of MeetMe both in general use and for vertical markets.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Editor

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