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Publisher's Outlook
May 2004


Rich Tehrani

From AT&T To Z-Tel: Carrier VoIP Returns

BY RICH TEHRANI


AT&T has been dabbling in VoIP for years, but recently they have taken a major step in this space by launching CallVantage, a service similar to other Internet telephony solutions in that it requires broadband access and a supplied gateway. In this case the device is from D-Link and it prioritizes voice over data and needs a total of 90K upstream bandwidth for a clear conversation.

The service is not yet widely available. Only Texas and New Jersey are online so far. Of course since it uses VoIP, you can be anywhere to use the service, but area codes are available in the above two states at the moment with more following soon.

My reaction? I am thoroughly impressed. This stodgy giant has finally listened. I have been writing about the need for new and exciting services for almost a decade and now, lo and behold a tier one carrier is listening. I expected less features than Vonage but instead there are many that Vonage doesn�t have while some important ones are missing. AT&T has become a serious competitor in VoIP. Although everyone I have spoken with at the company tells me they have a solid commitment to IP telephony, I would have liked to see more area codes in the initial launch. To me, this would have been the strongest indication of how serious the company is. Still, the list of features is long and will get even better over time.

Get IP While It�s Hot
AT&T should be commended for joining the Internet telephony party. Better late than never! There is a promotional offer of $19.99/month or 50 percent off of the regular price of $39.99/month going on right now for unlimited U.S. calling.

Features Galore
One interesting feature is a call log that keeps a history of your calls for three months and an included click-to-dial feature. Similar to a cell phone, you could look up a phone number and click on it, which initiates a VoIP call to your phone and the party you are trying to reach. A do-not-disturb function alerts callers that you have requested privacy. It can be scheduled so that you can always block your calls at dinner time during the week or on weekends. An emergency caller is able to break through this feature if needed. I am told there is (but could not find) a call screening feature that works with do-not-disturb, so you can listen to who is breaking through and decide to take the call if you like.

VoIP, It�s A Group Thing
A very powerful highlight of this offering is personal conferencing, allowing up to nine additional callers to be connected. This is breakthrough territory� Many office PBXs that sell for tens of thousands of dollars don�t allow conference calls of this size. When you activate a conference, you specify how much time you want the bridge open for. You are subsequently assigned a dial-in number and a PIN that all your callers need to be included in the call.

VoIP Find Me
A find me/follow me feature called simply �Locate Me� allows you to set up to five numbers that your phone can be forwarded to. The phones can be set to ring simultaneously or in a pre-specified order. Due to SIP limitations this feature will not forward correctly (according to AT&T Labs Personnel) if one of your numbers has an auto attendant on it. What I mean is that you cannot forward a call to a number that is answered and then requires the inputting of an extension number. Based on my conversation with one of the engineers, there seems to be a chance that we will see this feature as this person theorized that this may be possible to achieve fairly easily.

You can also set up 10 speed dial numbers which can be reached by entering ATT (288) followed by the speed dial number (1-9) and then # from your phone. You can also click on an icon to speed dial from the Web. When you do this, AT&T will first place a call to you and then connect you with the desired party.

As you would expect, voicemail can be heard over the Web or can be e-mailed. Fax is not yet available. A soft client is also not yet available but I think we should see one soon. You can call into a contact center and order the service or order online. You can also change all your features via a telephone portal interface. This is a great option that is useful when the power goes out and you want to transfer your calls to your cell phone. You can also call into the service and once connected, use that line to place more calls without disconnecting. This is a very useful feature for when you are being charged per call like in a hotel. Also, it is quite handy when making international calls from a cell phone.

You Can Call But You Can�t Hide
Something else I liked is the ability to click on a number and have the name of the caller come up (assuming they are listed). We will soon see the ability to transfer a call seamlessly from IP telephony to a cell phone or any other line without disconnecting. Address book integration is a bit further away but coming as well.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Unlike Vonage and Packet8, there is a $59.99 early termination fee that may apply. I am told that depending on the promotion, this may vary in the future. Generally speaking, this isn�t an issue as you have thirty days to cancel without penalty. Yet an astute colleague of mine mentioned that your broadband provider might provide slower service after your initial thirty days meaning that your voice quality will not be satisfactory and you will now have to pay a penalty to cancel the service.

My colleague further inquired in passing why AT&T doesn�t provide a network monitor so a subscriber can see the available bandwidth for themselves. AT&T should provide such a network traffic monitor and let you off the hook for the early termination fee if you are canceling due to poor broadband provider bandwidth. Company officials told me that they would work with providers if needed to resolve such bandwidth problems.

Velocity Over IP
I played with every feature there was and the service is lightning fast. When you change your speed dials, you can dial them immediately. When you change your call forwarding number, it forwards instantaneously. When you leave a voicemail it is e-mailed with no delay (sending a voicemail via an e-mail is not required but is a free option).

XML And VoIP, Truly Open Standards
The Web interface is very professional. It looks great. The phone interface is equally good. Our Webmaster and occasional columnist Robert Hashemian made a good point about this service. Now that you have Web access to your telephone line it is possible to build applications that leverage XML to access your CallVantage line. For example you could build a power dialer application with a few AT&T accounts. These accounts have unlimited minutes inside the U.S. so there is an incentive to do this. I would think that AT&T has a policy that takes this into account but the idea is still very intriguing. Take this further. As you are using IP, you are potentially able to see the packets, inspect them and make decisions based on their contents. For example, if someone wrote an answering machine detection algorithm based on packet inspection, you could build a predictive dialer application where each line costs no more than $20�$40 per month. This might make sense for an SMB environment.

AT&T Pulls Ahead
I see this service as a wonderful thing for the VoIP industry and also a not so good thing for many other VoIP service providers. Prices are destined to head lower (I have been saying this for almost ten years) so now the battle will be won on marketing and services. AT&T has one of the best brands out there and the ability to spend lots of dollars on promotion. That leaves others at a disadvantage. Vonage was off to a great start with their suite of services like being able to purchase additional telephone numbers in other area codes for $5/month. AT&T has upped the ante, with many interesting features and a low cost. If I had to judge, I would say that AT&T has pulled slightly ahead of Vonage with a nicer interface for managing calls.

What�s Next?
Still, the number of possible features you can add to telephony is limitless. Add speech recognition to the mix and you have incredible potential for services that can search the Web for information, make restaurant reservations for you, order pizza, connect with your calendar, call to remind you of important events and much more. Vonage was the leader in VoIP services until now� AT&T has done an admirable job of catching up but is still not available with enough area codes to be a serious threat to Vonage. I truly hope that we begin to see a services war so finally after a decade of my complaining, consumers and businesses will become more productive and rely on telephony for more and more of their everyday needs.
This is a milestone for the industry; consumers will now have more flexibility than ever before. More options to choose from, more features they can truly use, and best of all, this all comes at a lower cost.

Z-TEL REEMERGES
Who said CLECs are gone? We are seeing them come back in droves at shows like Internet Telephony Conference & EXPO. Frankly this is one of the most surprising trends I have seen in the market as of late. Nevertheless, VoIP has broad consumer acceptance now and by default in business as well. For these reasons, there is a new spring in the step of today�s CLEC CEO and Greg Smith of Z-Tel is no exception.

Recently in fact, the company signed an agreement giving Sprint access to their communications platform that consists of Web integration, enhanced services, and more. This is Sprint�s way of conducting local market tests in an effort to explore a nationwide local service roll out.

CLECs Break The Mold
Z-Tel is another small service provider breaking the mold. They have developed something called a Personal Voice Assistant (PVA) that allows the sending of voice e-mail, personal address books, community address books, and address book dialing. All of this takes place using verbal commands and is so conversational that you could mistake it for speaking with a person. By uploading your address book to Z-Tel, you are then able to access names through voice commands from any phone.

This method of storing contact information is device independent and more secure (assuming you trust service providers) than carrying around your address book in a PDA or phone. The service can be purchased with a phone line or as a standalone product.

Find Me/Follow Me comes with the service as does call forwarding, �Notify Me� (A feature that alerts you via e-mail of a call) conference calling, Web-based voicemail, and address books that can be shared by multiple users.

I had a chance to test the system with a supplied 800 number and I put it through its paces. I am very impressed. I first uploaded over 400 people from my address book into the system. I made a mistake while uploading and tried to upload a native Outlook PST file instead of a comma delimited CSV file. I received a very ungraceful error message. I realized my mistake and once corrected, the upload worked well. About 10 of my contacts had problems such as duplicate names (For example Jim Smith Jr. and Jim Smith Sr.). I was given a choice as to which contact I wanted to keep.

Once the address book was uploaded I was able to give the voice assistant a try. It worked amazingly well. I was able to place calls to my contacts with ease. Occasionally the assistant was confused and came back with its best guess of who I wanted to call. It was right most every time. Here is an example of what I said, �Call John Rodgers at home.� The system first confirms by reading back who it thinks you want to call and then dialing. If it makes a mistake, you can just say cancel. When the call is over, you can press ## and get back to the assistant.

Borrowing Some Fire
Of course for those of you in telecom for a decade or more you realize that a company called Wildfire pretty much invented this whole digital assistant category. Since then, this company has been sold and resold a few times but didn�t break through into the mainstream the way we all hoped. The Z-tel service reminds me a great deal of Wildfire � I am not sure if some of the technology found its way into the service over the years.

Now That�s Service
What Z-Tel has done with their PVA is extraordinary. You can send a voicemail to an e-mail address, multiple e-mail addresses, or a predefined group of e-mail addresses. You can send voice recordings via phone to individuals or groups. You can receive inexpensive directory assistance. You can set up conference calls of up to 15 people (I wasn�t able to figure out how to get anyone other than myself on the call). You can connect the service with Intellisync, allowing you to continually sync your contacts. You can set up VIP callers with a distinctive ring (this costs extra).

There is also a service called InfoStream, which is actually a virtual concierge service staffed with live operators that can give you driving directions, lottery results, stock quotes, flight times, horoscopes, reverse telephone number look ups, movie listings, and directory assistance. I tried the service and was able to get basketball results. As a UCONN alumnus, I had to ask if they knew the score of the recent Huskies women�s basketball game where UCONN made history by being the first division one team with both men�s and women�s titles in the same season. They couldn�t tell me the score but I guess we shouldn�t hold that against them ;-) Oh, did I mention that UCONN won both the men�s AND women�s titles? Just want to make sure you got that fact.

So what is next for the company? They will be expanding their offerings with a universal inbox and hosted PBX features that they will sell to other service providers. Expect to see them lighting up the wholesale, retail, and commercial markets with new and innovative eatures. Oh and last but not least, expect them to see them as a major VoIP player as well.

Room For Improvement
This service blows away both Vonage and AT&T in many ways. This is where both of those companies need to be. My two issues are in a few calls to the company for service; the operators bounced me around too much without solving my problem. Second, while the Web site is nice, AT&T has done such a great job with their interface that Vonage and Z-Tel need to go back to the drawing board and redesign their interfaces.
You can purchase Z-Tel service in a variety of different configurations. You can just get the PVA or combine it with long distance. I think it is worth trying this service. It is a serious productivity booster and time-saver. Once again these are the types of services I have been waiting for. Services that are on the leading edge yet deployed and useful from innovative companies that are smart enough to realize that competing on price alone is suicide. Welcome AT&T and Z-Tel to a brave new world of telecom services and welcome my loyal readers to a new age of services that will make our lives better as we become more productive and spend less time on mundane tasks that are now automated.

[ Return To The May 2004 Table Of Contents ]



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