The Computer Telephony Expo Spring 1999 opened here today at the Los Angeles Convention Center and runs through March 4. Featuring over 500 exhibitors, with numerous seminars and speakers, the CTExpo is geared primarily toward the commercial aspects of such trendy and hip concepts as voice over IP (Internet Protocol), voice recognition and, hold me back , call center technology.
Before you decide I’ve been possessed by an alien geek for bringing such dry non-consumer topics to you, let me ‘splain a few things. Sure, most of what’s at the Expo is not directly for you and me, each of these main areas of interest has application that is of interest and will be important (even interesting) to most readers. So, stay a while and trust me on this.
Now that I’m finished begging your indulgence, I can give you some background. Have you ever called a service company (such as FedEx) and been mysteriously greeted by name when the call is answered? How did they do that? How did they know it was you, even though you have blocked Caller ID? Have you called into a company and encountered a voice mail maze with a detached voice prompting you through the myriad of choices? (Who hasn’t?) Have you heard about the move toward long distance phone calls that are carried over the Internet? How about voice recognition? What if you called a company and, instead of having to enter the first few letters of the person’s name to find their extension in the company directory (if you can spell the name!), you could simply speak the name? What if you could get all the information you need from a phone call to a company by speaking to a computer, and what if the computer really understands you? If any of these are familiar or just plain interesting, you’ll understand why I visited the CTExpo.
Corporate America and, in fact, corporations and small to medium sized businesses around the world (for this is a global economy) need the technologies on display at the Expo in order to become more efficient and to compete on a world stage. If you want to know more about the serious and heavy-duty side of the technology at the Expo, you are invited to check it out here (if you can even understand it).
For the rest of you, here are some observations and highlights I found of interest as I cruised and schmoozed my way around the show floor:
Companies, lots of ‘em, are scrambling to integrate voice, fax, call routing, customer service records, company e-mail and more with a variety of software and hardware solutions. This involves bringing phone lines into the computer, and tying it all together, often linking multiple offices in far-flung remote locations. Though none of us will be buying our own systems any time soon, I was fascinated by all that those companies do to deploy these technologies. Who knew?
Voice over IP means, essentially, making a phone call that is carried over the Internet instead of through a phone company in the traditional sense. VOIP could be as seemingly simple as loading software on two computers – one in the US and one in, say, Italy – with each connecting to their respective ISP and on the ‘Net at the same time. The next step is to dial up one end from the other, each using their respective static IP address. Voila, through each end’s speaker and attached microphone, a conversation is born. These calls are made within the monthly cost of the callers’ ISP fees. Somewhat of a pain, there are easier ways.
Now, companies are scrambling to provide calls seemingly in the “normal” way though routed over the Internet through something called a gateway. This gateway is a computer located somewhat near the call’s origination and destination point that acts as a transfer point for the call. Place the call and it automatically dials into the Internet and is routed to this gateway near the termination of the call. At that other end, the computer dials out on local lines to the destination number. This all happens seamlessly and transparently to the caller. Rates are generally quite inexpensive as compared to a long distance call made in more traditional ways. However, I was told, VOIP may be a dead issue if plaintiffs in a legal challenge prevail. It seems that the local telcos want their piece of those calls.
Rates are cheap (five to ten cents nationally, 10 to 25 cents per minute on international calls) because calls bypass the traditional telephone company network infrastructure. Make no mistake; the calls still use phone company lines. It’s just that the call is, technically, an Internet call, just as if the call was made by your modem to dial up to your ISP. If the plaintiffs win, VOIP providers will have to add about five cents per minute to the cost of US long distance calls and pay a few to the local phone company in which the call originates. Using traditional methods, I’m paying 4.9 cents per minute for calls within California (my home state) and 8.7 cents per minute out of state, with six-second billing increments. I wouldn’t save an appreciable amount to change to one of those plans.
Hardware vendors were hawking routers and switches and the like. Companies including Cisco, the acknowledged leader in router and switcher hardware, were prominent on the floor. Then, I went to the Motorola booth where they asked the musical question (which I can’t answer here), “Why is Cisco on top when all they can do is send voice OR data, and WE can send voice AND data and have been doing so for five years?” I can’t answer it either, but maybe some of you can.
After getting my fill of this highfalutin technology, I managed to find a few cool things for plain old consumers and small business moguls like you and me.
Casio PhoneMate of Torrance, CA announced at the Expo a feature-rich four-line businesses telephone system.
- Four lines expandable up to 12 stations.
- The advanced system does not require a control unit (KSU). Connection with at least one line in common activates the network.
- Lifetime memory protection – no batteries are needed to maintain recorded voice messages, Caller ID info and 20 autodial names/numbers.
- Voice paging.
- Hands-free Intercom supports two simultaneous station-to-station calls.
- Quickly identify stations that are available or in use on the high res LCD display.
- Full duplex speakerphone (on SI-460).
- All calls are private unless talking station releases privacy protection.
- Headset jack with headset switch.
- Call timer.
- 20 autodial memories.
- Call forwarding from one station to any other.
- Hold reminder alert station when call is on hold too long.
- Auto line selection – lift the handset, acitvate the headset or speakerphone and the SI-460 will automatically select a free line.
- Automatic answer – lift the receiver wen the phone is ringing and the SI-460 will automatically select the ringing line.
- Station to station Caller ID – transfers Caller ID information to another station with the call.
- Voice mail with auto attendant on one of 12 stations is assigned as a Virtual Operator that answers incoming calls and directs them to individual stations.
- Each station can record up to 6 greetings with forwarding options. Twenty eight minutes of digital recording time is provided.
- Alternate greetings can be programmed to play at different times.
- Messages recorded at each station can be retrieved directly or from any touchtone telephone with the programmable security code.
The first product in the line is the SI-460, to be available in March, will be priced at under $300. Two more products are expected to round out the line by the end of the year. The second product, the SA-400, due in July, (pricing TBA) is an entry-level four-line phone with intercom, page and call forwarding. The third product, scheduled for third quarter delivery, and priced at under $400, is the SC-480, a top-of-the-line four-line 900MHz cordless telephone system with Auto Attendant, Caller ID and a full-duplex speakerphone, as well as the same system and telephone features as the other two products. I know of no other four-line 900MHz handset. Casio PhoneMate representatives told me the technology is a form of TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) technology, the same used in some cell phones. This product line ought to be hot!
MediaCom, headquartered in Bedford, MA, and best known for its PhoneMiser and MegaMiser Intelligent Telephony Routers, introduced a new, as yet unnamed product. The new device can stand alone (about $50) or the technology can be embedded in other devices to automatically and transparently select the lowest cost for every outbound call other than those covered by the customer’s monthly flat rate. A company spokesperson indicated the technology might end up as a little to no cost option in partner products.
If the approximately four-inch square by one inch thick device is attached with standard modular phone wiring and an ordinary RJ-11 phone jack, all phone extensions on that line will be covered and benefit from the device.
Here’s the skinny: The unnamed device, shown in prototype plain-Jane trim and announced just today, will just stay put where it is installed and do its thing unattended after installation. The user runs through a setup routine to connect with the company server. Information somehow shared includes the user’s name and phone number of the line on which the device is installed. Additionally, credit card information is used to set up an account. The server then sends dialing information to be used by and stored in that device at that location and is automatically updated monthly.
In use, every call made is compared to the database and instantly routed, that is, redialed if appropriate, to the carrier with the lowest cost, according to Bob Pokress, Chairman and Miser-In-Chief of MediaCom. This low cost routing technology, according to Pokress, is guaranteed to seek the lowest rate on all calls. Billing is said to be handled monthly on a credit card statement with each call itemized according to the carrier selected. Pokress said the service of selecting the lowest cost routing as well as the monthly updates are free.
When queried about how his company makes money on the deal, Pokress told me that his company gets a small piece of the caller’s monthly charges as does the company handling the billing.
I asked about competitors. Pokress told me he was unaware of any. I asked about the upcoming $50 Uniden cordless with seemingly similar functionality. The Uniden phone Pokress told me, is not really doing what we were told it would do at CES. He said that the Uniden’s “Long Distance” button is merely dialing a 10-10-xxx dial around service and that service is placing the call without really finding the absolute lowest routing. I will investigate this more thoroughly for a definitive answer and report back to you.
I also pointed out to Pokress that I had tested a product called the Telegen ACS 2000 about tree or four years ago. The ACS2000 connected in the same manner and used it’s monthly updated database to determine the best routing for what is referred to as local long distance, those calls beyond local but not so far as to quality as long distance. Often, it can be shown that the customer’s long distance service can handle these calls at a cheaper rate than the local telco. He said he knew nothing about the ACS2000. Pokresss said he didn’t think his product and service could best my own long distance rate, at least on domestic calls.
As I walked away, I noticed I was being shadowed by a not-too-sinister-looking man in casual dress. As we made our way away from the last exhibit, he spoke up and introduced himself. Bruce Robin, founder of Hawaii-based Imagitel said he noticed my rapt attention at the MediaCom booth and he just had to show me what he had in his bag. It was a brochure for a new product coming to market in the summertime time frame. He explained he was not exhibiting at the show but that he was there to see the show and have some business meetings. I guess my bright yellow PRESS badge gave me away!
The product in the brochure was a flip-style Millennium Phone ideally suited for business travelers. The phone plugs into the data port on the typical hotel room phone. Prepaid low-rate long distance is dialed through the phone without having to dial an access number, a PIN and then the number to be called. I’ll have more on this for you when I get it! Interestingly, on the back cover of his product brochure is a photo and blurb on a product listed as the Dial Director 2010 that looked curiously similar to my ACS2000. Bruce indicated that he had purchased the rights to the technology and was marketing the updated version on my old ACS2000 that now does essentially what the MediaCom product does! Hmmmmmmmmmm.