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It's a Fax Server! No! It's an IVR Platform!

By Ellen Muraskin, Computer Telephony
Jan 5, 2001 (9:17 AM)

The Premises:
Canal Satélite Digital, Madrid, Spain's leading satellite TV operator.

The Problem:
Handling huge bursts of pay-per-view orders before soccer matches.

The Pieces:

  • Copia's (Naperville - 630-388-6900) FaxFacts platform
  • Dialogic (Parsippany, NJ - 973-993-3000) voice, fax boards
  • Nortel Meridian PBX
  • Custom code from Info Estructura

The Payback:

  • CSD can handle huge volumes of calls right before soccer matches.
  • Subscribers can order from the road.
  • Spoken menus of matches are dynamically generated from operator's database.

The Plot:
Canal Satélite Digital, Madrid, part of the Canal + Group, is Spain's leading digital television service. In operation since January 1997 via the Astra satellite system, Canal Satélite now provides a million subscribers with more than 150 programming services, including names as familiar to Americans as CNN, Disney, and Turner Classic Movies. It also runs Spain's largest pay-per-view operation, commonly used to order viewings of soccer matches.

CSD subscribers have three ways of ordering pay-per-view. They can speak to one of CSD's call center agents (for an eighty-cent premium). They can use interactive TV with their remote control, the screen menu, and a set-top-box-to-modem link over an x.25 network; about half of CSD's subscribers are connected this way.

They can also use IVR (see schematic). The burstiness of pay-per-view - viewers typically order access a few hours before a game starts - has forced CSD to use automated solutions, even though, says Boris Levy, director of service provider InfoEstructura (Madrid, Spain, - +34-91-523-0792), Europeans are historically less amenable to IVR than Americans. "If you need to handle 25,000 or 50,000 calls in a hour or two, there's no way you can put in an army of people to attend all that." So CSD, like cable and satellite operators around the world, rely on IVR.

InfoEstructura installed and has been supporting this IVR application for CSD for three years now. The app, which also handles call center overflow and after-hours service, uses Copia's (Naperville - 630-388-6900) FaxFacts platform and InfoE's custom programming. "FaxFacts main market is fax, which is of course a part of the system that we also use. But we also use it for voice-intensive applications," says Levy.

The same programming functions that let FaxFacts FOD app play menus, respond to DTMF input, branch and make decisions, access databases, etc., can be used to build more voice-centric IVR apps.

"Even though FaxFacts looks very simple, it's really very powerful," says Levy. "You can develop very powerful dialogs with it and integrate it through DLLs with any other application. Its simplicity has been very important for this type of application, because we can use external programs that we've developed to act on the dialogs and change them dynamically. I haven't found anything that I could do with VOS or even C libraries, that I couldn't do with FaxFacts'.

"For example, we've written the program to consult CSD's database and specify what games are on at any particular time. (CSD managers input this data through a web-based program on their intranet.) Through an interface between that program and FaxFacts, we make FaxFacts say the games that are available at that day and time. We use phrase construction from professionally prerecorded sentences and names of teams and times. We use different recordings if the team name is mentioned first or second, so the tone of the phrase is correct," Levy says.

Callers to the IVR system input their customer codes and the six-digit code of the program they want to view. This code can be found on interactive TV menus, in CSD's printed viewing guide, or through the spoken menu of choices that, as described above, is dynamically generated every week. Other program logic checks to see if certain programs are available in the caller's region, and if the caller hasn't already bought the program he's ordering. The orders received in the IVR are fed into the Oracle database which, in turn, sends a signal to the customer TV through the satellite to activate the purchased TV program.

"The typical call lasts only 50 seconds," says Levy. They'll soon shave working on shaving five to eight seconds off that, by replacing a 14-digit customer code with caller ID and a four-port passcode.

InfoE's platform connects to CSD's Meridian PBX over E1 links. Other E1 connections to the PSTN take IVR calls directly. When operator intervention is necessary, FaxFacts can also bridge calls out to CSD's call center over the platform's SCbus and Dialogic hardware.

We should probably note at this point that Levy is a Copia VAR as well, reselling FaxFacts under an OEM agreement, branded Infofax. He's also developed some features together with the "fax server" company.

One feature in the works will use QSIG to let the Copia IVR accept calls transferred from the PBX across the ISDN network on overflow condition, then transfer them back when PBX ports become free. Another new feature lets the system derive calling party information via QSIG, and pass control to a DLL, before a call is actually answered. "Thus, we can now decide whether to accept or reject the call based on caller information and other relevant system data, such as line usage and time of day," says Levy.

CSD has also used InfoE's service for call-in contests: During a 24-hour marathon broadcast of "Friends" episodes, the broadcaster offered seven prizes of tickets to a U.S. taping to winners of a "Friends" trivia quiz. The system, which handled all contest calls, was completely maxed out for 18 hours, says Levy.