Intelligence On the Line

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-04-30
 
 
 

Its taken more than a century and many trillions of dollars for the telecom industry to recreate Betty, the helpful local phone operator.

Betty version 2001, less flippantly referred to as intelligent call processing, is one of the hottest new telecom technologies. Industry heavyweights ranging from Cisco Systems to Nortel Networks have developed some version of ICP software, and smaller companies are tweaking the applications.

What it all comes down to is making phones, cell phones, computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) more convenient and user-friendly. ICP software can perform applications as simple as routing your mother to voice-mail when she calls during your aerobics class, or as complicated as real-time, simultaneous Internet page viewing between users around the world.

Basically, ICP Is Betty, Cyberstyle

"A hundred and twenty-five years ago, the intelligent network was a person," says Jay Wilpon, director of AT&Ts advanced speech technology lab. "She could tell you that at 2 [oclock] on Thursday, John was getting a haircut, and could ring him there. You didnt have to remember phone numbers. She knew about storms coming, and whether there was a sale at the hardware store. In the lingo of the year 2000, the telephone operators were the first voiceportals. "Arguably," Wilpon adds, "although telephones have gotten universal, the user has gone backward in the last 100 years."

Automated Attendants

Operators have been replaced with stilted call processing systems that offer callers the limited choice of pressing button 1 for customer service, 2 for accounts payable and so on. Not only do these systems discourage callers, in todays communications world they have become unsophisticated and unprofitable.

"When you start to think about the possibilities that start when you get into mobile commerce, e-business, anything having to do with wireless, the [data] volume is going to quadruple," says Michelle Wheeler, director of fraud products at Lightbridge. "As an industry, we have to apply more intelligence to which data makes a difference. We have to be looking at [ICP] as a way of targeting this data more effectively and more efficiently. If we dont, our clients will have to continue to purchase huge, huge pieces of equipment."

ICP is designed mainly for use by phone companies, which offer it to clients as a value-added service. Its basically routing software thats placed behind or in front of a central office switch. It interfaces with the network via Signaling System 7 links or, in some cases, Integrated Services Digital Network signaling. The software is programmed with a number of triggers ordered by the service provider or its customer; for example, all 800 calls are sent to the customers Minneapolis call desk.

ICP software can also be extended to a platform, such as a local area network, that can analyze call data and determine which ICP application is most appropriate. Apex Voice Communications" OmniVox, for instance, uses a drag-and-drop system that works with both Unix and Windows NT. It sets up icons that contain a dialing box with call information such as "set speed," "quit" and "dial."

IP or PSTN

More and more ICP software is internet protocol-based, with the ability to switch over to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) if there are IP transmission problems.

ICP can be used to replace a companys private branch exchange system, but because prices range from tens of thousands of dollars to $1 million or more, its generally only purchased by large businesses. However, Nortels Business Communications Manager can add IP cards to a PBX, replacing a trunk card or a line card. The IP cards use either a companys Internet or intranet system, and make voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls appear the same as phone calls to the PBX.

Frequently, ICP is used to route customer ser-vice calls to call centers. British Telecommunications, McLeodUSA, SBC Communications, Telekom Austria and Verizon Communications all use ICP software that can queue calls, determine what the customer wants and then route the call to the appropriate support person, rather than use the old way of simply assigning the call to the next available operator.

"Any kind of customer care is not a technical issue that much any more. Its more of an organization and management issue," says Betsy Wood, evangelist at Nortels e-business solutions. "The more you know about a caller, the better you can route a call."

Nortels Symposium ICP software can pass a customers account number to a database to look up information before the customers call is queued for a service rep.

San Antonio-based Cyberlogs Call Center Service Node and Automated Service Node with voice recognition module allow a phone company to process 70 percent of its calling card or collect calls without a live operator. "It can allow toll and assistance to become a cottage industry. A manual operator could work from a remote environment, not from the call center," says Andrew Mangold at Cyberlog.

Future in VoIP

But many agree that ICPs future is in the VoIP arena. Not only are a number of ICP products equipped with sophisticated voice recognition software, but ICP is also set to be a feature of the new packet-based, integrated video, voice and data transmissions.

This is important, Wood says, because so few companies have integrated e-mail and voice messaging systems. At a recent conference, she asked participants how many of their companies had integrated voice- and e-mail, and the response was one out of 75.

Voice recognition is key in developing ICP. It allows a customer to interact with the software as if there were a person on the other end of the line, rather than a machine.

"The most seamless user technology is talking," AT&Ts Wilpon says. "Its essential if, in fact, this broadband world is going to function. Otherwise, you have a lot of disconnected devices."

AT&Ts How May I Help You voice recognition software, launched last November, is used mainly for customer care by billing systems companies, although AT&T plans to introduce the software in its long-distance customer care centers in late summer.

Within five years, Wilpon believes, customers will be able to pick up their phones and hear AT&Ts software announce, "How may I help you?" rather than a dial tone. The customer could then say anything from "Call my husband at work," to "Whats the weather like in Topeka?" and the software would respond — perhaps not as personably as Betty the operator, but just as efficiently.

How May I Help You is designed to recognize the meaning behind words, rather than just the words themselves. It accomplishes this in three ways, Wilpon says. First, the software is programmed with a large vocabulary. It also uses a technology called natural-language processing, based on machine-learning techniques that analyze thousands of sentences to pull out the meaning of a text string. For instance, Wilpon says, if a customer calls and says "I was disconnected," generally what he means is "I want a refund."

Once the How May I Help You software determines what it thinks the customer means, it activates a dialogue manager that can ask clarifying or verifying questions. It also notes salient words or phrases that may affect the meaning of the sentence.

Apexs ICP software also uses voice recognition technology, allowing a user to speak to an automated system. If the question isnt answered adequately, the caller is then transferred to an attendant.

"It gives you the substitute of talking to a live agent at a lower cost for the service provider thats providing the service," says Elhum Vahdat, executive vice president of voice communications at Apex.

Nortels Symposium ICP voice recognition software is used by American Airlines, allowing callers to track down flight arrivals by saying the city, time or flight number; by Charles Schwab & Co., allowing customers to verbally place stock orders; and by United Parcel Service, allowing customers to talk to the system to track packages.

Various ICP software developers are addressing the issue of unified messaging, which allows customers to access voice and text messages in a single mailbox on their computer or PDA.

Ciscos CallManager, for instance, can hook together a landline with Web-based applications. If a customer calls a computer helpdesk, for example, CallManager allows the customer ser-vice rep to see in real-time exactly what the problem is, says Hank Lambert, Ciscos director of product marketing for IP telephony.

"The customer can say, "Let me show you what this computer is doing to me," [and the technician] sees every keystroke, every mouse-click," Lambert says.

The software can also coordinate with a customers electronic calendar, determining that at 1 p.m. he will be in his car driving to lunch, so during that time, incoming calls should be transferred to his cell phone.

Nortels Symposium allows Web collaboration, where several people can access a Web page and work on the document in real-time.

Where Wireless Fits In

Lucent Technologies mobile internet services have an eXtensible Markup Language interface that lets third-party mobile content providers get the wireless users location information. For example, if a user dials Moviefone, the service knows which cell site or sector the user is in, and can then provide local theater information for that sector. In addition, parents can keep track of their children by tracing the kids mobile phones.

"In the mobile world, theres lots of intelligent call processing going on behind the scenes," says Jack Kozik, Lucents enhanced services architecture director. "A lot of new ICP innovation is enabled by mobile phones."

Marlboro, Mass.-based Telicas Plexus 9000, which incorporates a softswitch with ICP software, can track down a subscriber via a personal ID number the subscriber enters into his Web browser.

Lightbridges Fraud Buster 5.0 incorporates ICP features that determine if a wireless customer isnt paying for his service. The subscribing company can use ICP to analyze a customers calls for fraud triggers, such as too many calls in one day, high roaming charges or a lot of international calls.

"With the huge volumes of calls operators are processing, ICP allows you to really take a look at which calls mean something [in terms of potential fraud], and which dont," Lightbridges Wheeler says.

What Have We Learned?

ICP software set to be launched in the next 12 to 18 months by ADC Telecommunications can actually learn from a subscribers behavior and can put calls into voice-mail from, say, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., when the subscriber eats dinner. Plans for the software also include an automated number identification system.

If this brings to mind Hal, the computer that ran amok in Arthur C. Clarkes book 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Big Brother, the all-seeing government watchdog in George Orwells novel 1984, dont panic, says Grant Wakelin, president of the enhanced services division at ADC. "It could be viewed like Big Brother, but theres one key aspect: The subscriber is always in control. It can be a little scary, but I think it can be applied sensibly," Wakelin says.

Lucents Kozik says that with his companys ICP software "there are privacy standards. Only the people who have registered for the service [can be tracked]."

The idea is that the subscriber chooses from a subset of applications that can be as sophisticated as "put my daughter through at all times, except during my management meeting from 2 [p.m.] to 3 p.m."

ICP developers say that far from being intrusive, their software will seamlessly improve users communications.

"It can improve productivity, but its going to be friendlier — not as rude as cell phones are," says Ali Kafel, vice president of marketing at Telica.

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