Advanced Voice Services: Enhancing The
BY RICK SALTZMAN
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 ï¿½ content customization
for example ï¿½ 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,
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
- Universal acceptance of the Internet for communication, news, and
ADVANCED VOICE SERVICES
Voice-driven Directory Assistance ï¿½ 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 ï¿½ 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 ï¿½ 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 ï¿½ 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 subscriberï¿½s 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 ï¿½sales force automationï¿½ application.
Personal Assistant ï¿½ 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
Ad-hoc Audio Conferencing ï¿½ The bulk of todayï¿½s 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 partiesï¿½ 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 ï¿½ This service encompasses some, but not all,
of the services discussed here, especially in the PIM area. While the term
ï¿½unified messagingï¿½ encompasses many formats and media, for the purposes
of this discussion weï¿½ll focus on voice-accessible formats. Typically, a
single ï¿½mailboxï¿½ 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 ï¿½ 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 ï¿½normal and naturalï¿½ 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.
ADVANCED VOICE SERVICES TODAY
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
THE FUTURE OF ADVANCED VOICE SERVICES
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 subscriberï¿½s
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 companyï¿½s Web site at www.thinkengine.com.
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