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Product Reviews.gif (14305 bytes)
November 1998


iPhoneEX

Mind CTI, Inc.
333 Sylvan Ave.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632
Ph.: 201-569-6967
Fx.: 201-569-7585
Web site: www.mindcti.com

iteditorschoice.gif (10978 bytes)

Ratings (0-5)
Installation: 5
Documentation: 4.75
Features: 5
GUI: 4.75
Overall: A


Internet telephony started as a hobbyist's toy and has evolved into a serious technology, enabling many business applications. Before Internet telephony could make any headway into carrying phone minutes for customers, billing software on IP networks would have to be put in place. While the traditional carriers have decades of experience in measuring billable minutes for circuit-switched networks, charging billable minutes over an IP network is only in its infancy. Nevertheless, the opportunity to both save and make money using Internet telephony has helped spawn Internet telephony billing systems, including a remarkable one from Mind CTI called iPhonEX.

iPhonEX, a Windows NT-based billing and customer care system, is designed to provide ITSPs, telcos, and corporations with a comprehensive billing and analysis solution for voice and fax services over the Internet. iPhonEX processes call data (cost per minute calculation, authentication, etc.) and saves it in a database for later invoice and report production.

Using a single iPhonEX system, and a minimum of two gateways, you can set up your own phone company, complete with an invoicing and payment system and customer database built right into the product. iPhonEX even comes with a built-in debit card system, which allows you to have prepaid calling customers in addition to invoiced customers. In fact, we did just that (build our own phone company) at TMC Labs with the assistance of representatives from VocalTec and Mind CTI.

INSTALLATION
The representatives from VocalTec and Mind CTI came to TMC Labs to install two VocalTec gateways and a single Mind CTI iPhonEX billing system on another machine. Thus, we needed a total of three machines for our testing. We decided to take two new machines and format the hard drives and install NT Server 4.0 so that we had two "clean" machines to work with. A third machine, a fairly new Windows NT 4.0 workstation computer, would act as one of the two Internet telephony gateways.

One of the machines installed flawlessly. But, with the second machine, a one-month old Dell Pentium 266, we were not as fortunate. The Windows NT 4.0 installation would get as far as copying the Windows NT files from the CDROM, but would freeze in the middle of the copy operation. We suspected a flaky CDROM drive, and so, put in a new CDROM drive, and tried to install NT 4.0 again. This time we got a little further, but again, the computer froze during the Windows NT installation process. After a surface scan of the hard disk, and several more attempts, we finally got Windows NT to install, but we still couldn't resolve why it was locking.

The VocalTec representative installed two Dialogic D/41ESC boards into the two Windows NT machines to create the two Internet telephony gateways. We installed just one phone line into each gateway for testing purposes. We also installed the VocalTec Telephony Gateway version 3.3 software. The Mind CTI representative installed the iPhonEX software onto the troublesome Dell computer. The installation process itself was very straightforward, with few if any options to select when running the setup files.

We configured each gateway to allow certain area codes to be dialed. Likewise, on the iPhonEX dialing plan, we allowed those same area codes to be dialed, including area codes 201, 203, and 860. We also configured some customers and companies on iPhonEX's customer database to allow us to test the functionality of the system.

We assigned static IP addresses to the two gateways and the iPhonEX server. The IP addresses of the two gateways were also entered into the iPhonEX system, which had a real-time monitoring program showing whether iPhonEX could communicate with each of the gateways. A "Disconnected" message next to a gateway meant that there was a problem seeing a particular gateway on the IP network. Fortunately, both our gateways displayed a "Connected" status on the monitoring program, however, after about half an hour, the connection status changed to "Disconnected." Once again, the Dell computer was acting up. This time, we couldn't ping any network addresses on our LAN. We had to reboot the server to get it back on the network. Eventually, we figured out that the sound card was conflicting with our network card and we took out the sound card. Strangely enough, this Dell machine had Windows 95 on it previously and both the sound card and network card worked fine together.

In any event, other than having to reinstall Windows NT 4.0 on the Dell computer four times, it didn't take long to set up both gateways and the billing software. The billing software itself - which is the focus of this review - was actually installed and configured in less than 20 minutes. Thus, the iPhonEX earned an excellent 5 rating for installation.

DOCUMENTATION
Several manuals are shipped with the system, including iPhonEX Internet Telephony Billing System Administrator Manual, iPhonEX Internet Telephony Billing System User Manual, iPhonEX CMS (Internet Call Management System) User Manual, and iPhonEX Guard Internal Telephone Fraud Detection System. We were quite pleased with the documentation, which had generous amounts of screenshots, good indexes, and a descriptive table of contents. A quick start section is also included for those wishing to jump right in. We saw no apparent flaws with the documentation except for some initial confusion as to which manual we should refer to. For instance, we thought "reports" would be in the "Administrator Manual," but in fact it was in the "iPhonEX CMS User Manual." This is to be expected when you deal with numerous separate manuals. Overall, we gave the documentation a near perfect 4.75 rating.

FEATURES
The iPhonEX Internet Telephony Billing system features creation and management of prepaid calling cards, real-time cutoff of calls when call limit is reached, individualized customer rate tables, and fax charge options by page, duration, or priority (real-time or store and forward). One really nifty feature is the ability to enable customers to check their account balance on the Web. The ability for a customer to a check their phone bills over the Web is an enhanced service, which potential customers most certainly will enjoy. iPhonEX also provides monitoring of the load on each gateway and line and tracking of excessive use, including fraud alarms. In addition, iPhonEX allows the operator to generate invoices (both automatic and on demand), and manage payment and customer balances.

iPhonEX supports two modes: CDR mode and real-time mode. CDR mode is used for postpaid billing, whereby the customer receives an invoice for calls made. In CDR mode, the user makes a call through a gateway and then when the call is terminated, the gateway produces a CDR record. The records are stored in a file and then transferred to the iPhonEX system according to preset time intervals. Polling the CDR files can be done through FTP or over the TCP/IP transport utilizing iPhonEX agent as the mediator to communicate between the gateway and the central billing system. Real-time mode is used for prepaid billing. When the user calls the gateway, the gatekeeper prompts the iPhonEX system to authorize the call. If the call is authorized, the gateway is told the amount of time remaining to the user. When the call is complete, a CDR record is transferred to the iPhonEX system.

iPhonEX contains four different options for billing customers:

  • Credit - These customers have unlimited credit.
  • Limited Credit - Once the credit limit is reached, the account is automatically disabled in real-time.
  • Debit/calling cards - Once the prepaid amount is reached, the call is cut off and the account is disabled.
  • Debit customers - These customers prepay a set amount of money, and when they reach that amount, their account is disabled and they have the option to prepay again.

The user can define a simple tariff system, or define discount periods to provide better service in a competitive market. Different tariffs can be defined for each city or country prefix. Also, iPhonEX offers the ability to assign different tariffs on a country basis and support for multiple time zones and multiple currencies. An extremely useful capability is the ability to assign tariffs per customer and group of customers. Fax tariffs can be determined by duration, number of pages, or priority. Another feature is the iPhonEX Inter-Billing system, which provides for arbitration in an ITSP network to allocate costs between different sites and different operators.

The iPhonEX Guard Module enables detection of stolen calls and telephone misuse even by the most sophisticated methods. In iPhonEX, it is possible to recognize double usage of PIN/accounts. Alarms can be sounded when particular phone numbers or card numbers are used. This module allows the user to define a specific set of parameters that are matched against information processed by the system. When the system parameters are violated, iPhonEX Guard sounds the alarm.

OPERATIONAL TESTING
We made a call into Gateway1 and were prompted to enter our access code, which we did using DTMF digits. Next, the system prompted us to enter the destination phone number. After verifying our access code and verifying that the number dialed is allowed in the tariff, we were put on hold, and the system routed the call across our IP network to Gateway2. While on hold, Gateway2 placed a call to the phone number we entered. Once the call was completed, Gateway2 took us off hold and connected us to the call. We were now having an Internet telephony call across our IP network between two gateways monitored by the iPhonEX billing software.

After talking for a couple minutes, we heard a warning prompt: "You have 30 seconds remaining on your debit card." Sure enough, 30 seconds later our call was disconnected. Upon completion, the iPhonEX system enters the call in its call log.

We looked at the iPhonEX billing system client app and brought up the customer database. After clicking on the "cutesy-smiling-guy-with-glasses" icon to open the customer screen, we noticed a red icon next to the customer who just "maxed" out his debit card. This icon indicates that the customer is "blocked" due to exceeding the allowed credit. We edited this customer and bumped up his credit to $6,000,000. This allowed us to test the system extensively without having to increase the customer's credit line again, although we fell far short of using all of the six million-dollar man's credit line!

Also, on this customer screen, you can quickly query for a particular customer by typing the information into the appropriate fields, and then clicking on the Find button. Also, if you leave all the fields blank and click on Find, all the records are loaded, which makes it very simple to pull up the entire database. Icons help differentiate which customers are prepaid (card icon), and which customers are postpaid (profile of a face icon). The balance information, new calls charged, and remaining credit (if applicable) are all displayed on this customer screen.

Editing a customer's record was performed from a very user-friendly screen. The "Edit Customer" screen contained four tabs, including a "personal" tab for storing the contact information, billing tab for assigning the tariff and customer type (credit, debit, etc.), network tab for assigned a provider, and credit card tab for entering the customer's credit card information. Each of these tabs was well organized and made it very easy to modify a customer's record. In testing the access key, which is used to access your account, we noticed that we could enter the same key for multiple customers. There should be a warning to the administrators setting up accounts when a duplicate access key is entered, since often the access key is the only code used. You could, however, set up an application using Mind CTI's open API to use the access key in conjunction with a PIN number to allow duplicate access keys.

Security is very good in this product as well. A password is required to log on to the server. Also, each user has their own security permissions. For instance, users can set which menu screens and functions are available to each user, giving certain users access to change system parameters and to execute specific reporting features.

We tested the invoicing capabilities and found them to be very simple to use. You can also turn on automatic invoicing, as well as print the invoices to the screen or to a printer. Access to all or some of the invoices is also done using the same querying methodology as the customer screen. Thus, we were able to pull up invoices by querying on certain fields, such as dates, status (open, closed), or customer. Overall, Mind CTI did a very nice job with the invoicing system to make it extremely user-friendly and simple, yet very usable.

On a similar note, the reporting built into Mind CTI's iPhonEX product is also very easy to use. It's also extremely powerful, allowing you to draw up tabular reports on call detail records (CDR) and even graphical analysis of data.

The ability to monitor phone traffic and provide detailed statistics is a vital aspect of an Internet telephony billing system. Certainly, iPhonEX goes to great lengths to provide extensive reporting capabilities that can track telephone, modem, and fax usage. These reports can provide minute-by-minute details, monthly reports, or show trends over a lengthy period of time. The data from these reports can be displayed in tabular form, and some of the reports have the ability to graphically display statistics. With just a few clicks, we were able to pull up monthly reports by customer or by company. In some ways, the reporting package was just as good as Crystal Reports, though much simpler to use.

For those wishing to use their traditional reporting packages, iPhonEX has excellent export capabilities. The exported data can also be imported into legacy billing systems or combined with other CDR information for one centralized report, invoicing, and billing.

One critical feature for flexible pricing plans is the ability to assign tariffs to each customer or company, which iPhonEX supports. Within each tariff you can assign the resolution of each call which determines when to round off the billable time. For instance, users can round off each call to the nearest 6 seconds, 30 seconds, or minute, which is often a key selling point in phone companies attaining new customers.

We tested each of the iPhonEX features and they all worked flawlessly. If we had to point out key elements of this product, we'd have to say the GUI was excellent, the query and reporting tools were superb, and the overall integration of invoicing, reporting, prepaid, and postpaid customers within a single Windows application is unique.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
We would like the ability to import existing customers including all the address information into iPhonEx's database. In addition, we couldn't sort by the column headings on the grid control in the iPhoneEX Billing System application. The "Payment" screen only shows historical payment information and not the outstanding balance, which we would like to see. When entering access keys, the system doesn't check to see if that access key already exists, which could result in duplicate access keys.

The query tools were excellent, except we couldn't query by customer or company from the "Invoice" screen. Although, all you have to do is go back to the Customer or Company screen and query from there. Then you can just right-click on the company or customer and choose "invoices" which will then pop up the "Invoice" screen with that company or the customer you selected. Nevertheless, we'd still like to be able to query by company and customer directly from the Invoice screen.

Finally, when shutting down or restarting the Windows NT system with the billing system running, the computer does not shut down immediately. Instead, you are given three pop-up messages (one for each of the 3 billing system components running) asking if you are sure you wish to shut down the billing system. Sometimes these pop-up messages are hidden behind other windows, and unless you respond to these prompts, the server will not shut down. Although it's probably a good idea to warn users, we found these messages to be a bit annoying. No doubt savvy administrators will be maintaining the billing system anyway, and they will realize the implications of shutting down the system. An option should at least be made available to turn off these warning messages.

CONCLUSION
We were very pleased with Mind CTI's iPhonEX product. We had our own little phone company set up in just a few hours, which certainly should open the eyes of VARs, prepaid companies, and entrepreneurs wishing to make money in telecom. The ability to monitor and track as well as bill Internet telephony calls now makes Internet telephony a viable business solution. We were extremely pleased with the ease of use of this system, as well as its powerful reporting and tracking features. Likewise, the querying capabilities were very user-friendly and quite powerful. TMC Labs highly recommends Mind CTI's iPhonEX Internet telephony billing system, which passed our tests with flying colors and with high marks. 

 







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