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By Aaron Brenner,

We at Computer Telephony Magazine were desperate for a heavy-duty broadcast fax server that can successfully send 10,000 customized, mail-merged one-page faxes in two days. We've been scouring our industry for a product that can do it. So far, only Copia has met our non-trivial challenge.

True story. Gerry calls me at home. Says, "I have to send a fax to 10,000 customers in the next two days. They have to be personalized. They'll get trashed if they're straight junk. Can we do it?" My mind starts clicking. With our existing TeleMagic SatisFAXtion fax servers, each of Gerry's one-page faxes will take about three minutes. That's 30,000 minutes, or 21 days, for the job.

Even with the five single-line fax servers we have, it would take more than four days. I say, "No," and immediately move the handset away from my ear. But I can still hear Gerry scream, "We're Computer (expletive) Telephony Magazine for (expletive) sakes! We should be able to do this in our sleep!"

He's right, but I don't know what to say. He does. "Personalized broadcast faxing should be child's play. We've been 'printing' to our PC fax / modems for years. We've been mail-merge printing even longer, right back to the days of WordStar. Aren't there a dozen products that combine the two for heavy-duty broadcast faxing?"

Actually, the answer is "No." In fact, before Gerry hit me up with this task, I knew of only one product that could do mail-merge broadcast faxing. And we were using it.

It's a nice product. It's part of the TeleMagic (Carlsbad, CA -- 619-431-4000) contact management system our salespeople use. It uses the SatisFAXtion 400 board from Wildcard Technologies (Richmond Hill, Ontario -- 905-731-6444). But it's not fast enough. It takes too long to rasterize each new "personalized" fax sheet. And too long to send each fax.

Then Rick told me about a company called Copia International (Naperville, IL -- 800-689-8898). They said their product, FaxFacts FFMERGE, could do the jobs we need at the speed we require. Better, their ever-ebullient president, Steve Hersee, said he'd personally visit our offices and set up a system that would take care of us.

But before we agreed to have Steve come, we wrote down what we thought every mail-merge fax blaster must have:

  • Personalized faxes via mail-merge
    This seems to be tricky for most. A lot of the popular servers, like WinFax PRO from Symantec (Eugene, OR -- 541-334-6054) and RightFAX from RightFAX (Tucson, AZ -- 520-320-7000) are fine for handling occasional and even heavy traffic from multiple users each sending one fax (the same fax) at a time. But they don't include software for broadcasting thousands of mail-merged (i.e. personalized) faxes -- each fax going out looks different. That's the key.
    The same is true for most of the broadcast fax service bureaus. They'll send a fax to thousands of people very quickly, but they will all receive exactly the same document. The only thing different is the cover sheet they will receive. If you choose to send one, it will be different. You cannot customize the body of each fax the way you customize letters with the mail-merge feature of your word processor. And you certainly can't do it with Word97 in Microsoft's new Office97.
  • Fast faxing
    We want a one-page fax to go out every minute over each line we use. This is difficult given that every fax in a mail-merge broadcast is different and must be rasterized (turned into fax form) before it can be sent. We suggest a software / hardware combination that can rasterize the "permanent" pieces of the fax (those that every recipient gets) just once, and then add the custom information for each recipient when his / her fax is sent. Ideally, it should be rasterizing in the background the next fax blast while it's transmitting the present fax. This would reduce the time of each fax blast from 3 minutes to the 20 seconds or so it typically takes to send a one page fax (which is all we're blasting).
  • Multiple phone lines
    We want at least eight phone lines in one Pentium-based PC running DOS, Windows 95 or Windows NT. Any card we put in our PC should not cause endless serial port and IRQ hassles. If, to avoid these hassles, we have to build and buy an entire machine, we'll spark for it.
  • Reliability
    Our fax server must not hang. We want it to churn through an entire weekend without needing a reboot. Our fax blaster must give us continuous control so we can interrupt the faxing process at any time without having to reboot the machine and without having to start sending faxes at the beginning of the list -- again. Our current servers give up control to the fax modem, forcing us to wait until the modem returns control to the software, if it returns control.
  • Intelligent call handling
    Our server must disconnect quickly when it reaches a busy signal or a non-fax number. Our current fax blasters listen to four or five "The number you have reached is not in service, please hang up and try again" messages before figuring out they have not reached a live number. This wastes time and, if they reach a voice number, money. Setting a short "wait time for answer" is not the solution here because the two types of failures -- busy and wrong number -- are different. Calls that reach busy signals should be tried again for some User-Defined number of times after some User-Defined interval. Don't retry the call immediately after a busy signal. Make a different call and come back to the busy number later. Calls that are wrong numbers (i.e. voice) should not be re-tried at all.
  • Call scheduling
    Our fax server must allow us to schedule different types of calls for different times, within the same broadcast job. Do the local calls during the day and make the long-distance calls at night when the rates are cheapest.
  • Smart exception handling
    Our fax server must report all failed calls. We want a list of all failed transmissions showing why and when the calls failed, along with all the associated mail merge information. Was it still busy after the designated number of retries? Was it a voice number? Was it out of service?
    We also want to make and edit a new "batch." We give the operator all the information that the smart fax board gives us for each time the fax number was called from the failed calls. That way we can correct wrong numbers and re-send without having to sift our database to find the failed calls. Also, having the option to save all failed faxes to disk would speed the re-sending process since we would not have to "merge" them again before sending.
  • Call volume
    Our fax server must handle lists with up to 50,000 names and fax numbers on them. It must read lists from all the most popular databases, as well as simple comma-delimited ASCII files.
  • Network compatibility
    Everyone on our network must be able to send a fax, regular or mail-merge broadcast.
  • Multiple server support
    Our fax server should work with others of its kind. If we have a big job, we should be able to put multiple servers on it and we should have the software to manage them easily from one workstation.
  • Print-like faxing
    We want our fax server to support the standard printer languages, the two most important being Postscript and PCL-5. That way our faxed documents come out looking just like our printed documents. A broad range of font support is crucial too. And we want an easy method for incorporating standard image file formats, like PCX, into our faxed documents.
  • Easy management software
    Our fax server should use networked management software available to everyone on the network, but password protected for security. We want a simple screen with lots of options (e.g. cover page, phone list, schedule) to set up jobs. We want to have multiple, pre-designed cover pages, as well as the ability to quickly design them. And we want the software to give us the status of every job and the ability to edit jobs in the queue.
    When we sent this list to Steve at Copia, he said, "We can do it all. And I'll prove it." I said, "O.K. When?"
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