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Telecommunications Convergence

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January/February 2001 - Volume 80, Number 2

by Earl Browning

Are you looking to buy a phone system to replace an antiquated one in a branch office, or perhaps to outfit a new branch? In the title industry, the knee-jerk reaction to these kinds of purchases is "get the cheapest one that gets the job done!" For phone systems, this is a strategy that has served managers and owners well over the past several decades. After all, dial tone is dial tone and it sounds the same out of a plain phone or an expensive one. The voices sound the same, too. Often, with a fancy system, all you receive are features that no one ever uses. And even if they do use them, will that usage make your employees more productive and able to bring in more business? Not likely! Even the most advanced features, such as the ability for the system to "hunt" a person down by automatically dialing alternate numbers (cell phone, home phone, etc.), will help you reach your clients, but it won't necessarily lead to more title policies being issued. Smart money managers would say that if an increase in a particular expenditure brings new features that do not increase the ROI (return on investment), then you should not increase the expenditure. That's good business. Now consider converged telephone systems, often referred to as CTI (computer telephony integration). A traditional phone system is called a PBX (private branch exchange). It is a "box" that has ports for incoming lines from the phone company and ports for its special phones which go to the employees' offices. The box handles things like voice mail, call transfers, automated attendant, etc. It is, in essence, a computer, but it is proprietary, which basically means that it is incompatible with anything but itself. Therefore, it has no interaction with your other computers, which are running things such as Windows NT or XP. This seems like a waste, doesn't it? Why not merge the two systems and get some synergy? That is the basic philosophy behind CTI. With CTI, your phone system or PBX and your computer network are integrated. Therefore, Windows NT or XP can be the operating system that your PBX runs on and Ethernet can be the way the telephones connect to the PBX. On many systems, this convergence goes so far as to allow you to check e-mail from voice mail and vice versa, as well as give you all of the features of the "fancy" phone systems mentioned above. By now the check-writers reading this are saying "sure, but how do I make more money to justify the cost?" Here's the good part: there are many CTI systems available at around the same price as a low-end phone system.

But that's not all. If you have multiple offices, you can bypass long distance phone charges between offices by connecting over your wide area network (WAN). You can even do "toll bypass" when calling long distance to an area in which you have a branch office. You make your call by dialing 1+ the area code and number, but the CTI system is smart enough to know you have presence in that area and connects through your WAN to the branch office CTI system. CTI systems capable of these functions are generally a bit more costly, but the cost is usually recovered quickly by the savings you receive on long distance fees. You can also talk to branch offices and do toll bypass over the Internet if you don't have a WAN, but the quality is not easy to ensure. Therefore, it is generally recommended you only use toll bypass to call your offices, not customers.

There is another plus to these systems: the world is going this way. When it comes to technology, it is always safer to be doing what the rest of the world is doing, since you will reap rewards of price wars on new products, and you will not need to find parts or technicians to upgrade an out-of-date system. Also, you will be able to participate in new technological advances, since they are typically built upon new standards. Currently, the trend is leading to entire business models based on CTI, which will give you even more purchasing options. Here is one example. A company called SandStream gives you all of the phone lines and data lines you need, as well as all of the Cisco AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data) "telecaster" phones you require for a flat monthly fee. AVVID is Cisco's high-end answer to CTI. In addition to the features already mentioned, Cisco's system supports video and offers a display on the phone itself which can allow the user to interact with XML (eXtensible Markup Language) pages on the Internet.

SandStream provides a variety of services to Cisco's Telecaster IP phones. Utilizing the built-in 4-inch browser, SandStream delivers graphical coupons and advertisements directly to the telephone. In addition, the coupon or advertisement utilizes "hot buttons" to allow direct connection to a phone number associated with the ad or coupon. Other services SandStream provides to the telephone are directory services, including a corporate and association directory, or the national yellow and white pages. Additional services available include weather, traffic, and stock information, and various announcements or messages. SandStream possesses the tools to develop, deliver, and manage this content directly to the Cisco Telecaster. SandStream and its partners are developing many other applications. One example is a partnership with the local MLS to develop an application that will allow MLS lookups via the telephone. This particular service would be delivered to telephones located in real estate broker/agent offices. They have begun to work with some real estate-focused advertisers to deliver advertising targeted to this industry. This is an example of CTI potentially increasing revenue for a company's users. Can anyone see applications for the title industry? The obvious advantage to this approach is no cash outlay upfront. You get the most advanced features, but only have to pay a monthly charge. ROI is possible in two ways. First, the industry may find a way to increase business by deploying the XML browser similar to the way MLS is deploying it. Second, toll bypass and in-band calling can cut long distance charges.

If this model does not work for you, I recommend looking into Altigen. They have been around for a long time and, like Cisco and SandStream, have an excellent reputation in the industry. Using a good integrator, you can have one of these systems fully configured and installed for the same or less money than a proprietary PBX. However, you will also have the peace of mind that your system has a future and runs on the same operating system as your PC and your network. No matter what you choose, be sure to consider CTI before buying your next Nortel or Lucent PBX and beware. The people selling traditional PBX systems have developed a nasty habit of assuring you that their systems support (or will support) CTI. Don't believe them. Unless they utilize CTI currently, they will never run true, standards-based CTI.

Earl Browning III is president of Fluent Systems, a Dallas-based integrator who has been installing network systems throughout the country for 10 years. He can be reached at eb3@fluentsystems.com or 214-219-3200. This article is an excerpt from Browning's presentation at the 2001 ALTA® Tech Forum, in Orlando, FL.



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