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September 1999

One-Stop Shopping For Carrier-Class Conferencing


Today's business world is one without geographical borders. Corporations span states and continents, and the demand for effective long-distance communication is greater than ever. Well-managed conferencing systems can bridge these long-distance gaps in real-time, without the expense and effort of traveling to face-to-face meetings.

According to new strategic research from Frost & Sullivan, U.S. Audio and Document Conferencing Markets, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the forecast period 1998-2005 is projected to be 15.2 percent in the conferencing industry. Currently, the fastest growing segment of the market is the audio and document conferencing services, accounting for 81 percent of the total market revenues. Service providers can take advantage of this growth by looking to the history of conferencing, and then working to provide users with comprehensive carrier-class solutions.

First Came Audio
Audio conferencing was a boon from the start: for the first time, long-distance communication was real-time. All participants simultaneously learned vital information and took part in direct discussion and future planning. Proponents of audio conferencing also heralded its "personal touch": hearing the tone in another participant's voice was immediately recognized as a more effective and fuller way of communicating than written correspondence.

Real-time visuals, made possible by video conferencing technology, complemented the benefits of audio conferencing. By incorporating images with sound, conference participants gained a more complete understanding of complex ideas and plans.

Data conferencing completed the conferencing package. The use of charts and graphs enhanced conference quality by uniformly relaying factual information and statistics to conference participants. Functioning separately or as a "layered" solution, businesses can combine the benefits of one or more conferencing options to effectively communicate their individual company objectives.

To remain competitive, service providers need to offer complete conferencing options. It is equally important to appeal to consumers with specific features that improve the quality of a conference, while ensuring ease of use, reliability, and cost-efficiency in the solution.

Service Providers Need One-Stop Shopping
Competition among service providers is the catalyst that drives the development of new services. Those with the most services and options will maintain a large and loyal customer base. Why? Customers won't have to shop around for all the services they need. Just as consumers often opt for large grocery warehouses rather than smaller mom and pop corner stores, the one-stop telephony shopping experience allows customers to acquire all their services from one comprehensive vendor rather than numerous small vendors.

Currently, the most sought after conference services focus on customer convenience -- independent scheduling features, for example. A Web browser interface permits participants to easily organize conference calls without operator assistance. To ensure attendance, automatically generated e-mail invitations, complete with valid conference PINs and entry codes, are created.

The independent scheduling feature allows for "unattended" conference calls. Calls without third party (operator) participation allow users to drive their own meetings. Service providers recognize that attendees often feel more comfortable in this less formal setting.

Once a conference is in progress, its successful operation is of utmost importance. Web-based conferencing systems give operators -- the conference organizers -- the best tools and options to ensure successful conference completion. With the technology literally at their fingertips, conference chairpersons and system administrators can alter conference settings and call, mute, or disconnect users. Web-compatible systems also offer cross-conference access methods to rapidly and unobtrusively detect and fix problems such as disconnections or noisy lines. Operators also have the ability to greet, monitor, and assist users wherever they need help. Appropriate personnel can adapt system settings, configure the network interface cards, define scheduler options, and assign user passwords, all from the desktop.

Online billing software is another conferencing convenience. Upon completion of each conference, billing information -- including overall costs, documentation of minutes displaying each conference attendee, and the times parties joined or dropped the session -- is accessible.

All of these features enable customers and third party developers to create their own custom applications and user interfaces to communicate with the system. With service providers supplying access to multiple applications from their virtual one-stop shopping warehouses, the question becomes: How will they manage these applications effectively? The answer is: A single platform.

Adding Convergence To The Shopping Cart
Offering multiple conferencing options and a plentiful list of related applications is the perfect business model, in theory. For service providers, effectively managing all those services with disparate platforms is another story. Confusion and eventual network inoperability are often the result.

Converging voice, data, and video applications into a single platform solution allows service providers to manage all their applications in an easy, reliable, and cost-effective manner. One platform makes troubleshooting simple -- engineers have a single box-like system to maintain. Often, the entire conferencing system is enclosed in a casing as small as a microwave oven. In this case, size is directly related to cost: The smaller the system, the less space it encompasses and the lower the real estate costs are, based on footprint.

Another cost-related issue is the platform's expandability. The addition of new features through a simple software upgrade rather than a "forklift" replacement of the system protects the service provider's initial investment. For example, a telephony platform initially created to support audio conferencing should be designed to grow with the network and support emerging applications such as data and voice over the Internet. In fact, conference software engineers expect the streaming of data and voice over the Internet to be the most sought-after application of the new millennium.

Conferencing will continue to grow and evolve in response to future market trends and customer demands. To successfully keep pace with this market, it is necessary for service providers to be armed with a complete set of applications and a reliable and easy way to maintain them. What once seemed an impossible luxury is now available. Single, expandable, reliable, and cost-effective conferencing platforms exist and should be considered first when service providers deploy carrier-class conferencing solutions.

Robert H. Scott is chairman and co-founder of Octave Communications, a leader in collaborative telephony applications worldwide. For more information on Octave Communications and its products, call 603-894-6110, e-mail [email protected] or visit the company's Web site at www.octavecomm.com.

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