Inside telephony of the future

Inside telephony of the future

Like figuring out where you are, how you are accessible and whether the caller is important enough to interrupt you.

Like determining whether you are who you say you are before granting you natural-speech access to data such as your bank account information.

Like giving you intercom-like connections to just about everybody so when you want to reach someone, you just start talking.

These are just some of the new features being developed in VoIP labs.

Nortel is creating a trainable system that over time learns more about how end-users want to handle calls, according to CTO and chief architect of enterprise networks at Nortel, Phil Edholm.

Take that call

Today, you can use caller ID to determine who is calling and whether you want to answer the phone, but that requires stopping what you are doing, looking at the phone and then picking it up or not. What if the phone network could act like a well-informed administrative assistant and intelligently decide for you what to do with a call? Using Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and a server-based user software agent, Nortel is working on just that.

If a user is listed on a SIP presence server as available at a certain phone number and gets a call from a customer who represents a $US1 million account, the call agent would put that call through.

If, however, the agent determines the call is from an annoying router salesman, it can be dropped to voice mail.

After handling the call, the software agent queries the user to find out if it acted properly. It might ask the user to rank the importance of the caller, whether the call should have been put through, whether time of day was a factor, or whether the user's activity at the time was a factor. Based on these questions and answers, the agent develops its skill for screening calls for a particular user.

Some work still needs to be done to improve the agent's learning curve and streamline the user interface, but this feature should be available in 2006 or 2007, Edholm said.

AT&T is working on network VoIP smarts that can listen to callers and answer their questions without human intervention. Called multimodal, natural-language customer care, the system includes some current technology and some new developments, vice-president of AT&T research and architecture, Behzad Nadji, said.

If a user needs bank account information, he could go to a website, click to log on and set up a VoIP call.

Rather than answer a series of yes-and-no questions as interactive voice response systems do today, users state their problem in conversational speech. The system's VoiceTone speech engine converts what is said to text, analyses it and fishes the answer to the question out of available databases. It converts the text from the database into a spoken answer using AT&T's Natural Voices software.

VoIP helps integrate voice with data because they share a common packet infrastructure, which also opens the possibility of leaving multiple calls open all the time, Edholm said. In a circuit-switched network, a person makes a call, a circuit is created then torn down when the parties hang up. With VoIP, no packets are passed across the network when no one is talking, so connections could be kept open using low-bandwidth keep-alive packets until the connection is needed.

So an administrative assistant for a department could work from home but still be available to respond to spontaneous voice questions.

Dashboard dialling

Of course, it's possible that several people might want to talk at once, but Nortel is working on that, too.

One possible solution is a dashboard that alerts recipients that someone else is trying to get through, and an automated response back to the talker saying they're already talking to somebody else.

With these types of applications and call features being written for SIP-based networks relatively quickly, VoIP could crumble under the weight of the sheer number of them if there is no way to make sure they don't interfere with each other.

For example, a conferencing feature could automatically call a participant at 2pm, but the participant isn't at the phone and has activated call forwarding that will try several other numbers.

When the conference server calls and the find-me feature answers, the conferencing server asks for the participant's PIN. The find-me feature doesn't respond. It is looking for the participant. When it finally finds him and he connects to the conferencing server, it is waiting for the PIN. The participant doesn't know this, hears nothing and hangs up.

AT&T is offering testing technology called distributed feature composition that would let applications explain themselves to each other so they don't trip over each other causing negative interactions, Nadji said, eliminating potential management nightmares as cool new applications

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