CTI technology calls on fiber
Computer-telephony integration (CTI) technology--linking computer databases with call-handling systems--has been around for years, and the market continues to grow. But the technology is also changing in ways that will move more CTI applications onto fiber-optic networks.
To illustrate, telephone companies have been upgrading their networks to support multimedia applications, which are expected to markedly increase fiber use within corporate walls, according to Rob Walters, managing director of the U.K.-based Satin Information Services Ltd. "Even with [data] compression, a PC is going to need a `fat pipe` into the network to carry voice, data and video," he explains.
In the long run, this pipe will be based on Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) protocols transmitted over optical fiber. "ATM technology brings together both synchronous and asynchronous information systems in an efficient and flexible manner," he says. "Its high-speed technology can take advantage of the fast transmission paths provided by optical fiber, and yet is scalable for transmission over short distances and slower media."
ATM is already being built into telephone company networks and used in some installations as an alternative local area network (LAN) technology. But Walters still sees several obstacles that could block ATM`s road to market acceptance, the first of which is deployment.
ATM is deployed in small, isolated islands, just as was Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) only a few years ago: "The time, money and logistics needed to build national and global ATM networks suggest that many years will pass before an ATM-based broadband network is in service around the world," Walters admits.
A second obstacle may be customer need. "It is always possible to find applications that demand high bit rates and low latency, but there are often ways to fill these application needs using lower-speed networks," he says.
The one exception, perhaps, is video-on-demand. Walters cites a video-service provider who has implemented high-bandwidth ATM, even though its present service could just as well use copper cable. "The reason is that this system was planned for a future where multiple multimedia services may be delivered simultaneously to the home," he explains. "Customers will be doing different things, and multiple services will have to be delivered simultaneously over one network connection. This will require ATM`s high-speed multiplexing."
CTI market trends
CTI is a well-entrenched business tool. Call-processing centers, customer-service departments and sales organizations depend on computerized databases to provide online caller information and let callers conduct business transactions using touch-tone handsets.
Such common, well-established applications for CTI are pushing continued growth of a larger interactive-voice-response (IVR) market. In fact, according to a 1996 Frost & Sullivan report on the U.S. Telecommunications Voice Processing Market, IVR has yet to see its real growth spurt. Starting from $493 million in 1992, IVR revenues have increased to $695 million as of this year. But the Frost & Sullivan research organization estimates that IVR revenues may reach $1.7 billion by the year 2002. This represents an annual growth rate increasing from 8% in 1992 to 20% by 2002.
This growth will be driven by another trend known as computer-mediated communications (CMC) and represents the merging of CTI with more bandwidth- intensive electronic messaging and multimedia communications. During a Creamer Dickson Basford Marketview Seminar in Boston last March, Walters noted that the CMC market and its effect on network bandwidth requirements will be "colossal." He believes that while the CTI market will reach $2.5 billion by the year 2000, CMC market revenues will approach $10 billion during the same time.
Walters, who has also written the book Computer Telephone Integration and Computer Mediated Communications, says that the most probable early applications may occur in settings where integrated voice, data graphics and video are expected to provide "more-effective ways of doing business in the home and office." Such applications may include:
Geographically dispersed office workgroups
Multimedia information kiosks
Universities without walls
To illustrate one such application, Walters describes Management Recruiters International, a personnel-placement company with offices in 44 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Puerto Rico. "This company has quantified one excellent reason for trying an alternative [CMC] method of recruiting," he explains, "and that is cost."
MRI estimates that the job candidates it represents spend more than $135 million annually on long-distance trips to meet potential employers. But remote interviewing through 50 videoconferencing sites across the U.S. has eliminated much of this up-front screening expense. As a result, actual travel outlays are reserved for the final candidates on employers` short lists.
In another sample CMC application, Andersen Consulting has demonstrated a multimedia real-estate kiosk. "It emulates a complete real-estate office," Walters explains. "Through its touch-sensitive visual interface, the customer can inspect houses, explore house interiors, purchase maps, examine available literature and talk with agents and surveyors." The benefit of this CMC application, according to Andersen Consulting, is that customers use it, feel in control of their house hunt and appreciate the lack of sales pressure.
Despite the long-term promise of ATM and high-speed fiber for CMC applications, the short-term market will belong to carriers` ISDN and analog networks.
"ISDN provides the only current route to universal digital communications at rates that can support CMC services," Walters says. "It is an already-connected route into many homes and most larger businesses. But it remains for the telephone companies to provide economic access. Some telephone companies--more in Europe than in North America--are imposing ISDN installation and usage charges that are discouraging to potential users."
Walters even sees a continuing role for analog modems. "The analog [public switched telephone network] is not dead," he explains. "Since it is now sharing its core (analog voice) offerings with ISDN voice/data services, it is in good shape and offers connections almost everywhere."
But the network`s voice side probably remains limited to carrying lower-bandwidth CMC applications, such as voice mail, fax, straight data communications and still-image teleconferencing. "For applications that do not require video or the sophistication of a separate [ISDN] signaling channel, the [Public Switched Telephone Network`s] modem-based solutions make a lot of sense and will certainly form part of the CMC future," Walters adds. q
Dave Powell writes from Winchester, MA.