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Feature Article
July 2002

Advanced Voice Services: Enhancing The Subscriber Experience


Traditional voice carriers and service providers are in an increasingly competitive and commodity-oriented business. They are under tremendous pressure to both attract and retain customers while increasing revenue and margins. In order to do so they must be able to differentiate themselves from competitors. New and innovative services are the most effective differentiator between carriers. Services that are high-value also help to retain customers as they can require an investment � content customization for example � on the part of the customer. An increasing amount of advanced voice services are being deployed today. These services enhance the subscriber experience by enabling voice-access within any network, any time, using any device, including handhelds, fixed-line telephones, mobile phones, and PDAs.

Of the nearly two billion telephones in the world today, less than one percent has access to advanced media services, such as voice-activated dialing, unified messaging, and ad-hoc audio conferencing. The potential for significant revenue growth is attractive to service providers that have historically competed on price, leading to commoditization of basic telephony services. While there is still room for subscriber growth in the mobile phone segment, the real increases in revenue will come from increasing the average revenue per user (ARPU) while increasing customer retention rates. By offering advanced voice services, service providers can achieve these goals with very reasonable investments. Highly scalable, dense platforms for delivering voice services are now ready for trials. These platforms integrate IP, PSTN, and wireless network connectivity, and host voice applications, making it easy to deploy advanced voice services to millions of subscribers.

What Are Advanced Voice Services?
Many voice services have been developed and offered over the past 100 years. Operator-assisted calling, long-distance dialing, directory assistance, and multiple-party (conferencing) calls are just a few examples. With the development of central-office (Centrex) facilities-based services, hundreds of features could be offered. The development of robust signaling network (SS7) and intelligent network devices allowed for even more advanced services involving 800 numbers and Automatic Number Identification (ANI). Voice mail, while taking somewhat longer to reach critical acceptance, is a more recent example of a value-added voice service.

A number of factors have led to the demand for and development of a number of new and unique voice services that are defined here as advanced:

  • Growth of the wireless subscriber base;
  • Development of cost-effective and robust automatic speech recognition (ASR) and text-to-speech (TTS) software;
  • Mass adoption of e-mail, instant messaging, and mobile phone short-messaging;
  • Universal acceptance of the Internet for communication, news, and information.

Voice-driven Directory Assistance � The value of this service is cost-savings and enhanced customer service. By eliminating operator-attendants and implementing speech recognition, service providers can deliver telephone numbers based on the spoken word. AT&T offers this service for toll-free numbers (1-800-555-1212). Such a service can scale to serve millions of inquiries per day, and is available 24 hours a day.

Voice Activated Dialing � This service appeals greatly to the mobile user who typically does not have access to the telephone numbers they require and/or are in a position (driving the car) whereby manual look-up and dialing might be hazardous. In addition to dialing by name or number, other services include voice-activation of additional features and name/number list management. Sprint PCS and Qwest have rolled out Voice Activated Dialing to their subscribers.

Voice Portal Access � This service, which has equal appeal to both fixed and mobile subscribers, offers access to information via a voice-driven interface. Information services, such as stock prices, weather and traffic reports, news, sports scores, restaurant listings, and movie show times, are widely available today. Typically these services are provided free of charge, exclusive of the network connectivity charges. Enhancements to this service include early implementations of voice-commerce. With V-commerce, the subscriber inquiring about movie show times can then move on to purchase tickets via the same voice-driven interface and session.

Personal Information Management � This service provides subscribers with full access to e-mail, address books, calendars, and even reminder services via the telephone and voice-driven interface. The e-mail application allows the subscriber to listen to, and respond or forward their e-mail via the spoken word. Voice-activated access to calendars and scheduling tools is provided, as are outbound alerts for appointment reminders, birthdays, and flight delays. Previously recorded material (training, for example) can also be streamed to the subscriber�s handset, enabling access to training from the telephone. This service has been targeted at enterprise customers with a mobile workforce and is often bundled into a �sales force automation� application.

Personal Assistant � This service, popularized by Wildfire, offers subscribers a virtual personal assistant that can provide an easy way to manage all of their mobile communications through a voice-driven user interface. This personal assistant can take messages, manage contacts, initiate outgoing calls, accept faxes, and screen incoming calls. This type of service also has broad appeal to a mobile workforce and to mobile telephone subscribers.

Ad-hoc Audio Conferencing � The bulk of today�s multiparty voice conferences are scheduled in advance, delivered by service providers and involve, on average, eight endpoints. The remaining conference calls are created on-the-fly using the features of a PBX or central office switch. Setting up the former requires scheduling issues and can be costly while establishing the latter requires having the called parties� numbers at hand and understanding the procedures for dialing and adding participants. Ad-hoc audio conferencing typically involves three or four participants, and conference calls are established on-the-fly using voice-activation to initiate a conference and voice-activated dialing, allowing the conference system to make out-calls to the desired conference participants. This type of service has not been deployed but there are indications that it may enter trial stage with several mobile providers.

Unified Messaging � This service encompasses some, but not all, of the services discussed here, especially in the PIM area. While the term �unified messaging� encompasses many formats and media, for the purposes of this discussion we�ll focus on voice-accessible formats. Typically, a single �mailbox� is provided for e-mail, voice mail, short messages, and faxes, and is accessible and manageable via a PC, handheld, or telephone. For a mobile subscriber, the voice-driven interface gives them the ability to speak naturally to retrieve, browse, control, and respond to voice, fax, and e-mail messages.

Voice Authentication � This service is easily deployed today to provide a cost-effective way to allow customers to perform transactions requiring access to secure information via the telephone interface. Instead of entering a PIN via touch-tones, user authentication is performed using previously enrolled voiceprints to verify the identity of the caller. Such a system is desirable as people tend to forget their password or PIN, which requires a customer service action to reset, and is more secure as PINs can be guessed and/or stolen. Nearly every market is interested in such a service, from financial services (access to banking/brokerage services), to telecom (calling card verification, pre-paid cellular). Most advanced voice services will utilize voice authentication for approved access in the coming years. Several trials are underway using voice authentication in the financial services markets.

Any advanced voice service should, first and foremost, be easy to use. Navigating a Web site with a multitude of visual cues is very different from navigating a voice-driven interface. The average mobile phone caller, considering their environment (driving for example) can only remember a few options, and speaking is slower than reading. The pricing and packaging of the service should likewise be simple and easy-to-understand. Offering basic services free of charge or bundled into a larger service offering enables subscribers to experience the service. Offering enhanced services, to which a customer could subscribe via a voice interface, is a step towards increasing revenue and customer loyalty. Subscribers find advanced voice services that sound �normal and natural� to be preferable. Using and tuning of grammars associated with ASR and offering natural TTS is vitally important to the success of the service. Advanced audio production is a key component to developing quality programming material in the form of information services. On the infrastructure side, special consideration needs to be paid to scalability, in order to support millions of subscribers; reliability, so that subscribers can count on the service; standards-based solutions, including Voice XML and support for both PSTN and IP sessions; and voice application performance, so that subscribers enjoy and value the service.

The leading wireless service providers in the United States have begun to offer a wide variety of advanced voice services. AT&T Wireless has been offering its #121 Information Service since mid-2001. Cingular Wireless has recently introduced their Voice Connect service, while Sprint PCS and Qwest Wireless have been offering advanced voice services, such as voice activated dialing, for some time. AOL, with AOLbyPhone, and Yahoo!, with 1-800-MY-YAHOO, both offer voice access to their subscribers. Omnitel Pronto Italia, Cegetel (France), and KG Telecom (Korea) offer voice portal access. AT&T 800 and BT (U.K.) offer voice-activated directory assistance. Sprint PCS, partnered with Hey Anita, has begun offering PIM services to their mobile subscribers. Cingular has started to offer Personal Assistant services in select markets as have several international mobile providers including Orange in the U.K. A number of Network/Voice Application Service Providers are developing and rolling out advanced voice services for enterprise/business customers, examples of which include customer service applications for the transportation industry (United Airlines, American Airlines, Amtrak, UPS, FedEx), financial (Nomura, UBS, Fidelity, Charles Schwab & Co.), government (U.S. Census Bureau), and entertainment (Odeon Cinemas).

The telephone is the most widely available and most often used communications device in the world today. Today, there are more than 1,300 million fixed lines and over 700 million mobile phones worldwide. And mobile phones will overtake fixed lines in a very few years. While a great deal of effort is going into bringing data to the mobile phone, voice already has the power to access much of the information and a large number of services as well. Advanced voice services will continue to enhance subscriber�s experiences by providing voice-driven access to information and communications resources for the foreseeable future.

Rick Saltzman is VP of Business Development at ThinkEngine Networks, Inc. ThinkEngine develops and markets voice services platforms specifically architected for the delivery of advanced voice services, a rapidly growing market segment in the telecommunications industry. For more information visit the company�s Web site at www.thinkengine.com.

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