Transforming the telephone – using telecommunications innovations in small business

John Edwards

Telecommunications technologies are helping small companies become more productive.

The toy business isn’t a game for kids, says John Meyer, information-systems manager of Funrise Toy, in Woodland Hills, Calif. So when it became evident to Meyer that Funrise needed a better way to exchange plans and design concepts with its partners in Hong Kong, he implemented videoconferencing, a rapidly maturing technology that has become more affordable since it emerged more than 20 years ago.

He installed a videoconferencing system on one of the personal computers in his office and helped his overseas partners do the same with their PCs. In this way, Meyer gave his firm’s designers the capability to stay ahead of competitors who coordinate their development and manufacturing plans using conventional communications tools, such as phones, faxes, and regular and express mail.

“Videoconferencing,” Meyer says “allows us to coordinate the activities of people on different continents as if they were in the same room.” He says the technology allows Funrise designers to approve new artwork and samples and to get colors right.

Funrise is one of thousands of small and midsize companies nationwide that are tapping sophisticated, computer-driven telecommunications technologies to increase efficiency and productivity. While fax machines, cellular phones, and pagers have become everyday tools, an emerging generation of videoconferencing and other products promises to revolutionize the way businesses communicate with the outside world.

“When people think of computers and communications, they naturally think of data communications–the Internet and such,” says Brad Wheeler, professor of information systems at the College of Business and Management of the University of Maryland. “But computer technology is impacting on virtually all aspects of business communications–voice and images as well as data.”

Originally, only major corporations could afford videoconferencing systems. Smaller companies had to rent a set-up from a videoconferencing service provider. But now these systems are more affordable.

A survey of 6,500 diverse companies nationwide released in January by t U.S. Chamber of Commerce percent of the approximately 1,600 respondents currently use a videoconferencing system. But 57 percent of respondents said they plan to take advantage of the technology by the year 2000.

Videoconferencing’s projected growing acceptance is linked to its increasing affordability and ease of use. Until a few years ago, the technology was largely limited to a handful of corporate giants that were able to pay for the dedicated high-capacity phone lines or satellite links the technology required. Today, many leading-edge videoconferencing systems take advantage of ISDN, or the Integrated Services Digital Network, an enhanced phone line that can handle 128,000 bits of data, voice, or video information per second–or any combination of the three. That is more than four times the capacity of today’s highest-speed modems working over ordinary phone lines. Today’s lines can handle only 28,800 bits of information a second.

Moreover, ISDN service is affordable for virtually any company. The service costs about $100 to $150 to install and less than $50 in monthly fees plus a penny or two extra per minute in higher local or long-distance toll charges. ISDN is currently available through local phone companies in most areas and will soon be within reach from just about anywhere.

ISDN-based systems priced from about $1,000 to $5,000 are available from Intel Corp. of Hillsboro, Ore., (503) 696-8080; PictureTel Corp. of Danvers, Mass., 1-800-716-6000; and Compression Labs Inc. of San Jose, Calif., 1-800-225-5254.

While desirable, ISDN service isn’t absolutely necessary for videoconferencing. The videoconferencing technology used by Funrise, a $1,100 MegaConference system manufactured by Alpha Systems Labs of Irvine, Calif., uses ordinary phone lines to link users.

Although picture quality is not as enhanced as it is with an ISDN-based system, Alpha’s system is sophisticated enough to allow Funrise’s designers to compare plans and other detailed images. In addition, the system’s “electronic whiteboard” feature allows users to “jot down” text and sketches electronically for all viewers to see. While designed for ordinary phone lines, the MegaConference system can also operate on ISDN lines. For more information on Alpha Systems’ products, call 1-800-576-4275.

The three major telephone companies–AT&T; MCI, through its networkMCI venture; and Sprint, through its alliance with Intel–offer videoconferencing services and equipment leasing at competitive rates. For more information, call AT&T at (908) 953-7514, MCI at (202) 872-1600, and Sprint at (816) 854-0903.

At Ellis Ambulance Service, a company that provides 24-hour service to the New York boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx, computer-driven telecommunications technology is helping employees process life-and-death ambulance dispatches more effectively and efficiently.

Founder Walter Ellis says his company needed a technology that would allow workers to distinguish between emergency and routine administrative calls. The firm also required a way to respond to customer requests more quickly without wasting time looking up addresses or records, he says.

Ellis found the solution to both problems in an AT&T product that links the company’s PCs to its telephone system. The AT&T PassageWay system uses a phone company’s Caller ID service to match customer records stored inside a PC database with the caller’s phone number. As a result, before the phone is even answered, the caller’s entire record pops up on the PC’s screen, allowing the answering employee to anticipate the nature of the pending call. A basic AT&T PassageWay Solution costs $360. For more information on the Passageway system, call (908) 953-7514.

Walter Ellis believes that the PassageWay system has helped streamline his business’s workload and, in time, will even save lives. “You can have a person with congestive heart failure, and if you miss getting the correct address on the first try, that person could be gone by the time you correct the mistake,” he says. “You can’t place a price on that.”

Computer-powered telecommunications that can be arranged through many local phone companies also are helping retailers speed operations productivity. New interactive voice-response systems offer enhanced customer convenience, accelerate calls, and give callers a variety of new service options.

For example, at Magellan’s Essentials for the Traveler, a catalog retailer in Santa Barbara, Calif., voice-response technology has helped the company transform itself into a 24-hour-a-day operation.

Customers calling the mail-order company after normal business hours to order garment bags, compasses, or curling irons had been simply hanging up when they got the company’s answering machine. Magellan’s addressed this problem by adding an AT&T Conversant system, which enables callers to request a catalog, inquire about a product, or place an order. Users interact with the system by pressing keys on a Touch-tone phone and speaking words and numbers. Conversant can be used by itself, or it can interact with a host computer for data retrieval.

Multiple voice-response applications can run simultaneously and six to 15 hours of speech can be recorded, digitized, and stored. “It’s like having an extra two or three employees here 24 hours a day,” says owner John McManus. For more information on AT&T’s Conversant system, call (908) 953-7514.

While some companies acquire advanced, computer-based telecommunication systems as part of a general business overhaul, other, simpler new phone technologies can be implemented on an ad hoc basis. For example, a new generation of boards that can be added to PCs combine data/fax modem, computer sound, voice mail, and other functions.

The SoundExpression 14.4VSp multimedia modem, for example, combines a high-speed data and fax modem, a speaker phone, voice mail, and highquality digital stereo sound in a single board that lists for $179. Manufactured by Boca Research, in Boca Raton, Fla., (407) 997-6227, the product provides a voicemail facility with 1,000 password-protected mailboxes and lets users remotely access messages and faxes and record or change greeting messages. The board can also forward incoming electronic mail or automatically dispatch pager notifications on receipt of messages or faxes.

The unit’s speaker phone features an on-screen control panel that includes speed-dial buttons for frequently called numbers. Users are notified of incoming calls by a pop-up window, from which they can either accept a call or send it to the voice-mail recorder. Fax features include direct, broadcast, and scheduled faxing; automatic cover-sheet generation; and an integrated phone book for recording frequently called numbers.

The SoundExpression 14.4VSp isn’t unique. Similar products are made by several companies, including Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif, (408) 325-7000, and Creative Labs Inc. of Fremont Calif., 1-800-998-5227. Any of these cards can be installed by a computer user with moderate technical ability, although most retailers now have cost-sharing agreements with manufacturers to have a board installed in a PC at little or no cost to the customer.

With so many powerful new technologies appearing on the market, it’s easy to become confused by the array of choices. Tom Currie, a telecommunications consultant with Management Consulting Services, in Fairport, N.Y., urges business owners and managers not to get carried away by a product’s razzle-dazzle.

“Shop carefully and take your time,” he advises. “Learn all you can about the technology, and make a bottom-line decision about what it can contribute to your business. Always remember, it’s not about doing something new, it’s about doing something better.”

COPYRIGHT 1995 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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