As more consumers migrate to their services, VoIP providers are beginning to face pressure to emulate the consumer experience offered by TDM voice providers. E911 is the hot button in this regard, but it is not the only one. Operator services like directory assistance (DA) also are in demand from a broadening user base.
Indeed, calls to DA continue to be robust despite the availability of free listings in print directories and on the Internet. One provider reports 50 million calls worldwide per month for its services.
VoIP providers, as of late February, are not required to provide DA or to follow state-mandated tariffs, says industry analyst Kathleen Pierz, managing partner for The Pierz Group, a consulting and research firm serving the DA market.
In research for a January report, Pierz found retail DA pricing ranges from free to $3.49; the weighted average price is $1.10, “but no one pays that,” she adds.
Particularly for VoIP providers offering flat-rate bundled services at consumer rates as low as $19.95, incremental revenue from calls to DA can make a huge impact on ARPU.
Unless the provider is a well-heeled traditional operator, however, it is unlikely that it has DA infrastructure or access to necessary capex to build it. So, the only viable option is to outsource the service to a third party.
Outsourcers are eager to meet this need and are rolling out enhancements to their services, making it easier for VoIP providers to connect to their DA platforms.
BellSouth Interconnection Services, for example, is combining its wholesale DA services with its VoIP Convergence (VoIP-C) service, rolled out last year. VoIP-C allows IP carriers to hand off IP traffic directly to BellSouth; BellSouth handles the conversion to TDM through its media gateway.
The combined VoIP-C/DA offer will be marketed beginning in the second quarter, says Nick Dinsmoor, senior product manager for BellSouth’s wholesale VoIP. Internal technical trials are ongoing and the company expects to complete customer trials prior to the launch as well.
Mike Lassiter, senior product manager for DA services, says the company’s DA infrastructure is not directly compatible with IP. While the conversion to TDM does not represent a noticeable difference to the consumer, IP end-to-end promises efficiencies for the wholesaler. Lassiter expects BellSouth to move to this model, but declined to offer a timeline.
InfoNXX Inc., the largest DA wholesaler, according to analyst Pierz, also is working on developing an IP-to-IP handoff. “We are finalizing the equipment infrastructure,” says Paul Ciotta, senior manager of corporate communications for InfoNXX, referring to the installation of session border controllers to take IP traffic. He says the company is still in the testing phase - both internal and customer - but expected to roll out commercially available service in the second quarter.
Business process outsourcer ILD Telecommunications Inc. announced in mid-February it has IP-enabled its Enhanced Operator Services platform, which supports DA. Wholesale customers now have the option of handing off IP traffic directly to ILD’s Cisco Systems Inc. routers. “The call stays IP all the way through,” says Robin Collins, vice president of outsourced services for ILD. IP enablement, she says, gives ILD customers another access option and offers the wholesaler the ability to attract new customers, including next-generation and international operators.
ILD’s service includes an IVR front end and live operators - provided under contract with an undisclosed third party - on the back end.
Similarly, wholesaler Volo Communications Inc. announced in early March its partnership with Easy411 Inc. Speaking at the CompTel/ASCENT Convention & Expo in February, Volo CEO Shawn Lewis says the company tapped Easy411 to provide branded DA to customers of Volo’s VoiceOne platform. The VoiceOnce Enhanced Information Service, also available to VoIP carriers on a standalone basis, includes call completion and SMS/e-mail notification of number lookups - a feature that could prove useful as VoIP providers begin providing mobile endpoints, he notes.
InfoNXX also offers call completion and optional TextDirect, which presently is used primarily to serve wireless carriers’ customers. But, Ciotta says, such notification could be pushed to other IP phone devices that are likely to be textenabled in the future. “Some of the applications we are able to provide in voice, we also can provide in text,” Ciotta adds, noting traffic conditions and driving directions as examples.
Analyst Pierz says offering enhanced information services has proved to be a financial boon to carriers that have invested in their promotion. “Enhanced features are nice if you tell people about them,” she says, advising a short promo played at the beginning of the DA call works well, according to her recently completed research. “The more often [subscribers] call, the more money you make.”
Providers are tight-lipped about rates for wholesale DA services. Pierz concurs, but offers year-old figures ranging from 30 cents to 42 cents depending on the service. Services range from standard phone number and address lookups to call completion, text notification and other location-based enhanced services.
BellSouth Interconnection Services www.interconnection.bellsouth.com/operator
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