Hello... Are You Still There?

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Have you ever been talking on your cell phone, maybe explaining a business problem in depth to a colleague who is listening intently? And then, “Hello! Hello! Are you still there?” Damn! Gone! And for how long? Did your cell phone disconnect just seconds ago or was it minutes? Then in your mind you start thinking, “Just how much of that conversation am I going to have to repeat?”

This disconnect problem doesn’t affect only cell phone users and their providers. It has also become a significant issue with enterprise private branch exchange (PBX) system vendors. Cell providers know how frustrating “talking to air” is for their clients, and many have begun offering a service option called a call drop tone, which does exactly what its name suggests: Should you lose your cell phone connection with someone, you will hear a tone that indicates you were disconnected. For those of you who have had many cell phone conversations with yourself, I’m sure you can understand what a time saver this feature could be. It only makes sense that you should also have this same feature on your work phone, but you don’t.

Do you remember analog phones—those big, noisy, clunky pieces of hardware that were the mainstay of the telephone industry? Maybe you’re old enough to remember what happened when someone hung up on you but you didn’t hang up your own handset. You got a dial tone—long and loud for about 30 seconds—and then the phone company blasted an ear-piercing bleeping noise through your handset loud enough for you to hear from the other side of the house. There was a reason the phone company wanted you to hang up your phone: If your phone was off the hook, then that meant you were taking up a valuable hard-wire line resource, as well as a position on a physical switch at its phone center. The line could not be released until you hung up the phone. 

Analog phones are not completely gone, but they are quickly disappearing. Verizon spokeswoman Debra Lewis estimates that less than 1 percent of its subscribers still use analog phones, but that means the number of analog users might still be in the hundreds of thousands.

The modern digital PBX system is run by computers and software, so it doesn’t deal with “off-hook” issues in the same way analog systems did. On a PBX system, if someone were to hang up on you or the call dropped for some reason, then the call would get torn down, as they say in the industry. What happens in the background is the PBX software logically disconnects your phone from the system, and no physical line is wasted. In simple terms, all of the lines are virtual streaming IP channels that send packets of digital data back and forth between callers and phone sets.

This minor nuance in call handling has created a significant challenge for the interactive voice response (IVR) industry. Many phones on PBX systems these days do not provide a sonic indication that your call has ended. If you are talking to someone on your digital work phone (tied into a PBX system) and he hangs up or the call is dropped, then you would probably continue talking, completely unaware of the fact that the call ended. You would experience the same lack of call disconnect notification as you would if you were on a cell phone. There would be no dial tone, call drop tone, or any other sonic indication that the call was over. 

Up to this point, these subtle differences in analog and digital phone systems were merely annoyances, but let’s take a look at a few real-world scenarios that affect thousands of IVR-based applications and programmers, as well as IVR hosting services that often get blamed for missed recorded audio.

Let’s look at a practical problem from a business perspective that might happen at your own company: You are on vacation, but it’s important for you to be voice-conferenced into an important meeting. Your business associates call your cell phone from the conference room phone and bring you into the meeting. About a half hour into the meeting, your cell phone disconnects. Too bad for you. Your business associates don’t know you’ve been disconnected because the conference room phone didn’t make a peep when the call was dropped. To make matters worse, when you try to call back you get a busy signal. Ouch! 

Doctor, Interrupted

Here’s a second example, and one that affects the IVR industry as a whole: After a long day, a doctor plops down into his office chair and calls his medical transcription service. An IVR programmer can create an application that will allow the doctor to log into the phone system and start dictating his medical reports, which are automatically recorded from his digital phone. But something happens: It might be a dropped call from the service provider, a technological hiccup by the telecom carrier, or even a nanosecond burp on the hospital’s own PBX system. Nevertheless, the phone gets disconnected, but the doctor’s phone doesn’t make a sound. It doesn’t go back to a dial tone; it does nothing. Therefore, the doctor continues to dictate for another hour without realizing that nothing is being recorded. 

This scenario is a dictation service’s biggest nightmare and one that is completely out of its control. An IVR programmer might be able to come up with several complex ways to handle this event, such as automatically calling back the doctor, but PBX systems do not readily give up their virtual phone numbers or caller IDs. This is why at times you look at your cell phone and see the same caller ID number appear for dozens of people who call out from the same PBX system. In addition, auto-callback is a pain for the client. Let’s say, for example, the doctor was done with his dictation, and he hung up the phone normally. Most probably he would not be pleased if the dictation service automatically called him back a few seconds later to verify he had hung up his phone on purpose. 

The best scenario would be for the caller to hear a call drop tone or dial tone, just like old analog phones used to provide. Availability of the “Hey, the phone is no longer connected” signal would let the physician know his call was dropped so he could simply dial back in and finish his report from the point of disconnect.

The advent of digital phones has created a new industry. Cheap digital sets are very quiet and make a perfect vehicle for recording phone conversations. Yet, as more and more IVR-based recording applications are written for the phone, it is becoming imperative that the phone lets you know when it has been disconnected. 

For this article, I contacted eight major PBX vendors, and only one confirmed that its phone system would provide some sort of hang-up notification. I tried to find out exactly why this seemingly simple (almost commonsense) feature would be so difficult to incorporate into their PBX systems. The answer I found was that it wouldn’t be difficult at all. 

Digital phones connected to PBX systems are basically small computer devices that communicate to a server via a network. The way these phones respond to every telephonic event is downloaded into each unit. The modification to provide a dial tone when a call ends is simple, but it brings up an interesting question: Why wasn’t this feature incorporated into PBX systems when they were originally designed? After all, doesn’t it make sense that the caller should know when the call is over?

I met with Voxeo’s CEO, Jonathan Taylor, and his thought was the PBX phone systems were programmed from the ground up from a coder’s perspective. Coders don’t necessarily take into account intangible human features. A programmer would look at the dial tone issue as a legacy analog necessity that phone companies required to free up their switches, and decide that this feature was no longer needed in the digital world. 

This is not the case. When asked if he thought PBX vendors would add this feature to their existing systems, Taylor responded that most had lost millions of dollars in the economic downturn and were probably concentrating on simply staying in business.

For the IVR service providers that use the phone in their product packages, this is certainly a crushing disappointment. Many promising companies will fail based on the fact that their clients (who have lost dozens of audio recordings) don’t know when their phones have been disconnected. How many recordings does a client have to lose before he becomes disenchanted with a service and bails?

Who would have ever guessed that something as simple as a dial tone could mean so much to a fledgling IVR industry? Wouldn’t it be nice for you to never have to say those words again… 

Brett Arquette is chief technology officer for the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida and a freelance writer based in Orlando, Fla. He can be reached at brett@arquette.us.

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