As MSOs wait for their opportunity to deliver toll-quality voice service in Internet-protocol format, they might want to think about other approaches to enhancing data services with voice using the capabilities IP-voice providers are supplying to leading broadband portals such as Excite@Home Corp. and Road Runner.
These companies and many others are seeding their content and affiliate sites with voice chat, voice-over-electronic-commerce and other applications by tapping third-party infrastructures that are also being used for adding voice applications in the commercial market.
As a result, cable operators seeking to extend their high-speed-data capabilities into the business sector have an opportunity to offer valuable voice enhancements without installing full IP-telephony systems.
"Live-voice-based interaction provides a new way for the Road Runner community to interact online," vice president for corporate development Meredith Flynn-Ripley said. "It offers a natural way for people to connect and interact online, and it is a natural extension of our current communications services, such as e-mail, personal pages and chat."
Lipstream Networks Inc.-a supplier of such capabilities to both of the leading cable Internet-service providers-is also linking up with applications-service providers and business-oriented portals to extend a vast range of enhancements to business services that don't require operators to install full IP-telephony systems.
For example, eAssist.com Inc.-a specialist in "e-business" customer relationship-management (eCRM) services-recently contracted with Lipstream to provide PC-to-PC voice capabilities to enhance eAssist.com's customer-interaction services. Other entities are tying in with the voice provider for eCRM applications, as well.
"Lipstream's product enables live, real-time, interactive Web-based support," eAssist.com CEO Dan Plashkes said. "With e-mail, chat and voice over IP, our clients have three ways to interact with their customers, which further strengthens the online relationship."
Lipstream and competitors like Net2Phone Inc., HearMe Inc. and Evoke (formerly Vstream) are targeting other types of Web-voice applications, including such enterprise-centric capabilities as virtual Centrex (central-office exchange service) and CTI-based (computer-telephony integration) extensions to remote offices.
But the greatest demand for IP voice is focused on the point of online contact between companies and their customers, Lipstream CEO Matt Jones said.
"We really believe the customer-service market is the largest market for live-voice service on the Web," Jones said. "The biggest challenge e-businesses have today is selling, servicing and retaining their customers. It's really hard to compete with the brick-and-mortar world if you can't communicate with your customers like you can in the real world."
Recent moves by American Express Co. and Compaq Computer Corp. to put the Lipstream infrastructure to use suggest the extent to which this view is taking hold in consumer e-commerce.
American Express wants to enhance e-based sales of credit-card accounts by activating PC-to-PC voice connectivity, allowing users whose computers are equipped with standards-based voice-client software and microphones to interact with sales representatives.
Compaq is going further and applying voice across all phases of online customer service, including a PC-to-phone interconnection that will be first used in its Florida call centers, Jones said.
The Lipstream voice service is supported by a massively scalable, patent-pending architecture comprised of high-performance servers with telco-grade uptime, managed quality of service and 24-7 support, Jones said.
"We've built in redundancy, automatic fail-over and automatic problem correction, and we've architected the system so that it has multiple routes into the Internet," he added, noting that the "featherweight" 150-kilobyte client software Lipstream uses requires less than one minute to download over a 28.8-kilobit-per-second modem.
"We've had millions of downloads of our client, and daily, we carry millions of minutes of traffic and thousands of simultaneous calls, all over this network," Jones said.
Similar accounts came from other IP-voice-service providers.
"We have peering relationships across the United States and internationally, whereby we have [local] servers with our proprietary software that basically allow us to maximize the quality of voice," said Jeremy Verba, president and chief of HearMe, which started out supplying multiplayer online games.
"If you're in New York and I'm in San Francisco, and another person comes in from Kansas, we will find the optimum point where that conversation should happen on a server," Verba explained. "If you're on a 28.8 [kbps] modem from New York, and I'm on a high-speed line from San Francisco, I can assure you that [the point-of-server connection] is going to happen closer to New York."
In a recent 30-day period, HearMe logged 400 million minutes of voice calls through its own and other sites that are affiliated with the network, Verba said. Users coming to the HearMe site spend an average of 48 minutes per session, or 300 minutes per month, he added.
"That's a long time that you can hold a customer," he said. "We've been seeing that with a lot of customers who have licensed our technology."
As consumer use of voice on the Web spreads, businesses no longer have to worry about market receptivity to the idea of offering a voice connection as part of customer service online, Verba noted.
"On the business side, businesses are adopting live voice for a couple of different reasons-richer customer relationships and increased productivity, which translates into higher ROIs [returns on investment]," he said.
"Businesses want scalability, reliability, high quality and standards compliance, and they don't just want PC-to-PC," Verba added. "They want the ability to hook into the phone, as well, and to really make it a very robust experience."
PC-to-phone is key to the strategy implemented for Web-based calling to call centers by Aspect Communications Corp., a longtime supplier of call-center solutions to Fortune 500 companies worldwide that has also become a leading supplier of customer-relationship portals.
Aspect offers an e-commerce-support solution to call centers. It includes a voice gateway that allows calls coming into the center over the IP feed to be translated to circuit-switched pulse-code mode for distribution over the premises network via the PBX (private branch exchange), said Cynthia Weiss, manager for Internet solutions at Aspect.
This solution allows call agents to receive IP-originated calls through headsets in the usual fashion, eliminating the need to handle online queries differently. "There's a sense in the air that this is something people are going to need to stay ahead of the competition," Weiss said.
Aspect has bundled voice and many other Web-based customer-service capabilities into a software solution it calls "Aspect Web Interaction." It gives customers browsing Web sites new options for communicating with contact-center agents and conducting business online.
Also, through integration with the "Aspect Customer Relationship Portal," the software allows for the application of business rules to Web interactions and allows integration with existing front-office and back-office systems and customer databases, Aspect vice president for product marketing David Puglia said.
Web Interaction also queues Web transactions to the same agents handling phone and e-mail queries, Puglia added.
"The hardest part of any customer Web interaction is reacting in real time to a buy request or a service request," he said. "Customers abandon roughly two-thirds of all Web transactions due to lack of online assistance."
Aspect's Web Interaction enables online customers to browse Web sites unassisted and, as support is required, to interact directly with service representatives, Puglia said. Customers can interact via phone-to-phone IP telephony or PC-to-phone voice over IP, or they can request a callback over regular phone connections, or ask for a text-based chat session.
The system also incorporates Internet standards to provide shared browsing and collaborative capabilities such as page markup, many-to-many conferencing and joint form completion, Puglia said.
Meanwhile, in a move sure to accelerate the spread of IP-based voice communications, Net2Phone has tapped the advanced IP-to-PSTN (public switched telephone network) circuitry and software provided by Silicon Valley start-up
Komodo Networks. It has created a line of hardware solutions called "YAP," for "Your Alternative Phone."
The product line-which will be marketed through retail stores and VARs (value-added resellers) starting this summer-includes a business solution that provides multiline communications capabilities for small businesses and larger PBX corporate environments, Net2Phone executive vice president Jonathan Rand said.
"YAP is a pioneering product line that will let anyone simply connect their phone system to the Internet and communicate easily and affordably," Rand said.
Products include a YAP phone installed in a PC's USB (universal serial bus) port and a YAP jack that permits calls made from regular phones to be converted to IP and sent along the data network via a local ISP and Net2Phone's backbone.