HD voice isn't the only technological advancement where VoIP has trumped the traditional telco sector. It's also done the same for video calls, and HD video calls could be next.
Telcos have been promising video telephony over fixed lines for decades, and in fact video calling was touted as a chief differentiator for the first 3G services eight years ago. Neither ever really took off for a variety of reasons, from cost and interoperability issues to a clunky user experience and the fact that most users didn't like the idea of being visible during a call.
But in fact video telephony has been around for several years if you count Skype's video function. Skype CEO Josh Silverman told an audience during his CommunicAsia 2010 keynote that video calls accounted for 34% of Skype-to-Skype calls in 2009.
"That means that if you look at figures from TeleGeography showing that 12% of all international voice calls in 2009 were Skype calls, that means that 4% of international calls included video," Silverman said.
The next frontier is mobile, and Skype is already exploring that space with Skype Mobile Video for the Nokia N900, which enables Skype video calls over Wi-Fi or 3G to other N900 devices or to PCs, and later to flatscreen TVs with embedded Skype clients.
Silverman said it's early days to see how well Skype Mobile Video performs, and that the company is treating it as a learning experience for future rollouts with other devices.
"It will be good to learn from this and find out what our customers' expectations are from mobile video - how they use it, how that's different from the way they use desktop video and how we can make sure they get the experience they want," he said.
Mobile video also ties into Skype's overall strategy to enable ubiquitous communications across devices. "Any computing device becomes a communications device with our software, whether it's a PC, a mobile phone, a TV set or even a refrigerator," he said. "The future is about sharing communications across these devices, which traditional voice networks are not designed to do."
GigaOm Pro says that video calls will grow from 600 million calls in 2008 to almost 30 billion calls by 2015. "We intend to lead that revolution," Silverman said.
And just as Skype and other VoIP clients have pioneered HD voice quality, they're likely to do the same for HD video telephony, says Slava Borilin, Asia VoIP expert for Spirit DSP.
"Video is already a third of Skype calls, and more people want to move to HD video - not full 1080i, maybe, but definitely 720p. And for the consumer, the difference between standard and HD video is more obvious than voice quality," Borilin says.
VoIP players will also have an easier time of implementing it than operators, Borilin adds. "For carriers, it's even harder to move to video calls because of the bandwidth required, while for internet companies, it costs almost nothing to them. So many of them are already moving to upgrade their video to 720p."