CES 2013: UrbanHello Takes a Step Toward the HD Telephony Era

When I first saw the UrbanHello phone, last night at the Consumer Electronics Show, I laughed. A speakerphone for landline phones? The landline phone system is going away. Then I realized what it was—a product at the leading edge of the very telephony revolution IEEE Spectrum had just done a story about.

A few weeks ago we published an interview about the end of the public phone network—this is the idea that the circuit-switched network is going away, in favor of end-to-end packet-switching. And just like the transition from analog to digital television brought us HD TV, the big benefit to moving from analog telephony to digital would be HD telephony. UrbanHello is the first HD phone I’ve seen, one of the first ever.

The phone is basically a cordless handset that can communicate with any base station that adheres to the DECT-GAP standard. If the base station is part of a home’s analog (PSTN) phone network, it just works as another handset. If the base station is digital, however, and uses the emerging CAT-iq standard, then the UrbanHello unit will make an HD-quality call. The phone's keypad is cleverly hidden in the base.

The handset broadcasts the call out loud on its speaker, and frankly, sounded pretty good even in the terrible audio conditions of CES—a room packed with exhibitors and press. In a living room, using HD, it would be a huge step up from the lousy speakerphone systems we use today. UrbanHello won a CES 2013 “Innovations Award,”  and, of course, it’s a Kickstarter project.

Our interview last month made the point that HD has faced a chicken-and-egg problem: Why build products, when the networks aren’t all-IP, and why switch the networks over to IP, when there’s no obvious benefit to end-users. HD voice can’t come soon enough. It’s good to see someone getting the ball rolling.

Image credit: UrbanHello

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