Speech Technology Magazine

 

Stephen Collins, Executive Vice President of Marketing & Business Development, ThinkEngine Networks

This week's feature in NewsBlast focuses on topics relating to the telecommunications industry. Questions were posed to Stephen A. Collins, executive vice president of marketing and business development for ThinkEngine Networks.
Posted May 1, 2002
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Q How did the U.S. and global telecommunications industry get into its present difficulties? Will it recover? If so, when?
A Telecommunications remains vital to consumer and business life in the U.S. and around the world. The industry spent the past several years overbuilding its networks to accommodate projected aggressive subscriber growth rates. When this didn't happen, telecoms were faced with monumental debt and no way to repay it - hence the present shakeout. However, recovery is inevitable as new technologies and markets emerge. The good news is there are bright spots on the landscape, particularly among wireless carriers. Their problem isn't growth, but churn. ThinkEngine's business, delivering platforms that lower the cost and complexity of advanced voice services, enables wireless carriers to offer new services that significantly improve customer retention. Once subscribers fill a voice-activated directory with contact names and phone numbers, they are unlikely to jump to another service provider.

As the industry digs out of its debt problems, weaker companies will fall by the wayside, opening the way for the stronger players. We see revitalization - and stepped up capital expenditures - by the end of 2003/early 2004.

Q What is your company doing to enhance speech technology within the service provider marketplace?
A Our mission is to make delivery of advanced voice services a practical reality. Right now, if you're a carrier or a voice application service provider (VASP) rolling out an initial voice service, such as an email reader, you need to integrate a rack of voice, server and networking equipment that is about seven feet high. This is expensive, very complex to integrate and hard to manage. Scaling your application up is even more difficult.

Our Voice Services Platform substitutes that seven-foot rack with a single, six-inch-high hardware system in a 3U form factor. It provides the lowest total cost of ownership for carriers and VASPs, and greatly simplifies implementation. It's the only highly integrated, single platform solution specifically architected for voice services, and can be deployed in both PSTN and IP networks today. Whereas existing technology is preventing the realization of the new voice services market, our platform will help make it happen.

Q Why should service providers and carriers deploy speech solutions?
A For two main reasons: increase average revenue per subscriber (ARPU) and reduce churn. Initial marketing of advanced voice services is impressive. Roughly 100 advanced voice services implementations are in place in the U.S. today. Voice-activated dialing and voice portals are among the most popular new services offered today. Sprint PCS and Cingular in the U.S. and Telia in Sweden have deployed voice-activated dialing on a limited basis. AT&T Wireless plans to offer it this year. Sprint PCS charges $4.95 per month for the service and reports adoption rates of about 30 percent. AT&T Wireless offers an on-demand voice portal for voice-navigation of a menu of options, including stock quotes, news, travel, message centers, sports, entertainment, weather and shopping. AOL has won more than 200,000 members since Q4 2001 for its voice service, which accesses email and stock quotes. So these services hold tremendous promise for carriers.

Q Can you provide real examples?
A Voice-activated services include: dialing, voice portals, email reading/email dictation, voice mail, text messaging, directory assistance and conferencing. These services bring productivity and information access capabilities to the telephone far beyond its present capabilities. One of our beta customers, Audiopoint, Fairfax, VA, is using our Voice Services Platform to deploy an email reading application. This utilizes the embedded TTS software capability built into the TEN1000 Voice Services Platform. For mobile professionals, being able to hear and dictate emails while driving to their next meeting is a major advantage.

Q How does your platform change deployment of speech technology solutions?
A Let's take the Audiopoint example. A single, six-inch-high TEN1000 Voice Services Platform has replaced two cabinets full of networking, voice and processing equipment in their hosting environment. We have a tightly integrated hardware system that combines all the processing, telephony interfaces (both PSTN and IP) and embedded voice software engines (TTS, ASR) architected in a 3U form factor. This means you avoid the patchwork approach -integrating disparate gear carriers previously had to put together to roll out voice services. Our product allows providers to lower initial costs, operating costs and manage a single platform instead of multiple systems.

Q Where do you see the carrier business for speech technology going over the next three years? Please provide your thoughts in terms of size and services.
A The voice/phone interface will become as universally adopted worldwide by the end of the decade as cell phones and email are today. We've seen a lot of studies, and one of them from The Kelsey Group projects the voice market at $19.5 billion by 2005. This market will be driven initially by the wireless carriers, which are relatively healthy financially and have subscribers with the strongest need for these services. From there, this phenomenon will spread. Within a few years, the notion of manually punching a keypad will seem as outdated as using a typewriter.

Q What are your thoughts on two markup languages, VoiceXML and SALT? What does the evolution of these two standards mean to your customers.
A VoiceXML is a dialog markup language. SALT is a procedural framework to create similar applications in a much different manner. VoiceXML permits the development of dialogs that will be executed in the same way under lots of different conditions because the rules for execution are well known standards that have been written into VoiceXML interpreters and gateways. SALT permits the development of many types of interactions, but the execution rules are up to the SALT programmer. SALT provides a framework for procedures, not a set of dialog execution rules. SALT programs will execute differently in different environments. This is a plus where flexibility is key and a minus where uniformity of interaction is desired.

Q Tell us a little about your company and where you see yourself in a couple of years.
A Right now, we have the only integrated hardware platform specifically architected for voice services. Industry analysts tell us no one else has built a similar system, and we haven't seen a competing solution that can support the same number of simultaneous callers and range of services using the same hardware footprint. This technological head start, combined with the great potential of the voice services market, gives us confidence ThinkEngine will see strong growth, particularly as the telecommunications industry emerges from its present problems. By 2004, we foresee widespread, scaled implementations of voice services from wireless and wireline carriers, and we believe our platform will be widely adopted.

Q Why did you get involved in speech technology?
A Two reasons: we saw advanced voice services as one of the most important growth sectors for carriers and VASPs, and we saw that no one was offering a highly integrated, cost-effective, comprehensive and uncomplicated solution. We believe in the future of voice services. The voice-activated phone interface will relegate manual dialing to obsolescence. Voice-activated access to information portals, emails, instant messages and conferencing will all become routine activities. This is the wave of the future, and we plan to be an important part of it.

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