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Open Source Telephony Answers the Call

Innovation is key

Open source telephony will play a key role in keeping North American companies competitive in today's global marketplace. Not only does open source reduce upfront and operational costs, it increases productivity and furthers innovation in ways proprietary technologies cannot.

Take Aheeva as an example. Montreal-based Aheeva, a developer of call center applications, considered launching a spin-off company that would provide contact center outsourcing services including technical support, sales, and newspaper and cable TV subscriptions services.

However, at first glance it seemed too expensive since the start-up cost of setting up a call center (based on a proprietary PBX solution) would have cost close to $2 million.

In addition, many companies find that once an expensive standard PBX solution is implemented, it's not customizable, does not provide the level of support needed, and there is often little they could do to improve it.

Drawing from their vast expertise in evaluating and recommending call center technologies, Aheeva was in a position to compare solutions and implement a best-of-breed solution for its spin-off, the Atelka call center.

In March of 2003, they discovered Asterisk, the open source PBX/telephony application for Linux. Aheeva began as a three-man consulting service, with no call center. Working with high-end, very expensive, proprietary, hardware-based Lucent Genesis PBXs, they struggled to find contracts where they could deliver a fast return on investment.

By September 2003, six months after they discovered Asterisk, Aheeva dramatically increased the number of contracts they were able to pursue and win. Their new list of happy customers received the benefit of a reliable technology and a huge cost savings that Aheeva was able to pass along to them. Aheeva now continues to grow its consulting arm, adding 25 new employees including 15 engineers. Furthermore, they were now able to create the Atelka call center, which provided a new line of revenue for the company. By September 2005, Atelka will exceed 500 call center employees providing a wide range of services.

"We immediately saw the potential in the Asterisk solution," says Georges Karam, CEO of Aheeva. "We adopted Asterisk and got to know it very well."

Many companies now need call centers that can handle a high volume of calls for their technical support or sales department. Asterisk already has the functionality needed for this application built in: call queues, parking, extension logic, contexts, etc. "Call centers can benefit extensively from Asterisk-based call center solutions," says Karam.

Another key value-add for Aheeva was Asterisk's customizability. Aheeva was able to create several specialized tools to complement existing features and increase their contact centers' productivity.

Aheeva needed to simplify the configuration and administration of the existing Asterisk dial plan (Asterisk normally uses text-based configuration files to handle this). In addition, Aheeva needed to expand the ability of Asterisk to handle load balancing over an array of multiple Asterisk servers and switches, without losing track of the channel in which each individual call resides. This improved Asterisk's quick deployment and scalability.

AGI, or Asterisk Gateway Interface, is patterned after the Web's Common Gateway Interface so that the programmer can use his or her favorite programming language to create Asterisk applications, then communicate with Asterisk through STDOUT, receiving Asterisk's response through STDIN.

In the process of adding new features to Asterisk and testing its limits at the time, Aheeva discovered and fixed two bugs within the Asterisk code that appeared when you scale it to installations of this size. The Aheeva team submitted patches back to the community, which were well received. The stable branch of Asterisk 1.0 was introduced back in September 2004.

Though Asterisk started out as a basic PBX in 1999, it has expanded, integrating all of the major features needed in any type of telephone network for businesses. Because Asterisk has provided Aheeva with a high level of quality, as well as the ability to customize and upgrade inexpensively, it has enabled the company to compete with both the quality of big telecom companies, as well as the price of call centers in low-wage areas like India, Pakistan, and South America, as Aheeva is saving money on hardware and software instead of wages.

In the past six months since Asterisk has developed a stable development branch, Aheeva has not experienced any technical difficulties. Written for Linux, Asterisk is the most versatile open source telephony application available. Asterisk was launched as a C-based open source soft-PBX for Linux, but because of its open source model, Asterisk has expanded into an end-all be-all for telephony. It handles Voice over IP protocols in addition to TDM traffic (over traditional copper-wire telephone lines). In addition to PBX functionality, an Asterisk server can function as a soft-switch, an IVR menu system, a voice mail server, a call conference server, a media/music-on-hold server, etc.

Aheeva's COO, Francios Lambert, explains that if it weren't for Asterisk and Digium, "We would have never been able to grow the way we have, and the costs to implement our call center would have been prohibitive."

Instead, they quickly built an array of Asterisk servers, Digium high-density T1/E1 data and voice PCI cards, and soft phones for each user. Their total cost ended up being less than $400,000. Lambert added that the cost savings associated with implementing an Asterisk-based PBX to support its call center business has enabled the company to pass the savings onto its customers, and remain competitive in the outsourcing market.

Computer telephony integration applications are traditionally very expensive. But with an IP-based Asterisk call center, all the CTI functionality comes naturally. This has allowed Aheeva to build several new CTI applications to Asterisk make their call system more efficient. Because Aheeva uses soft phones, which go through the PC, calls can be integrated with e-mail, Web browsers, and the operating system. This eases Customer Resource Management as data can be routed wherever it needs to go, and can be presented to the agent receiving a call (e.g., customer name, photo, order history, etc.). Calls can also be routed to any agent anywhere. If a sales person receives a technical question, he or she can easily transfer the call to the first available agent with the correct skill set to provide an answer.

System administrators can also maintain an extensive database containing important statistics, such as how many agents are logged in or on the phone, how many calls they have made or answered, how long the average call is, etc. This data can be viewed and managed remotely. Statistics on each agent's work schedule for past days can be viewed in bar chart format representing the time they were working, took lunch or a break period, etc. An administrator may even listen into an agent's conversation if need be. Data on each agent's time talking to customers, time on hold, time off line, etc., may be compiled and computed to create a "Productivity ratio" for the entire group as well as each individual agent.

In addition, Aheeva has added an important CTI-based feature - answering machine detection. "We could not do without it," says Lambert. Answering machine detection can usually tell whether the phone on the other end was answered by a human or a machine, because people tend to answer the phone with a one-word greeting (like "Hello"), whereas recorded greetings tend to run on for a couple of sentences (e.g., "I'm not in... Please leave a number..."). The server can also detect the length of the pause before the greeting, another clue as to whether or not there is an answering machine on the other end.

Other custom solutions Aheeva created include a video screen capture application based in Macromedia Flash that merges sound and video; a multilingual, VoiceXML text-to-speech application that reads text to a caller (from documents such as help files or Web pages); and an automated, speech recognition application that transcribes contact center employees' voice recordings into text and loads it into a database. The text can then be archived and screened for words and phrases.

Aheeva has used Asterisk alongside its own technology to serve a variety of applications, including an automated stock quote service that users can call to obtain stock quotes through speech recognition applications. There are also applications for telephone flight schedules, movie ticket ordering, and winning lottery number information.

Aheeva's goal in the coming year and beyond is to remain the number one Asterisk contact center. Although they have a huge head start in developing the necessary technology to complement Asterisk, they will need to continue to innovate to compete with those companies who are quickly catching up.

More Stories By Rick Segrest

Rick Segrest is marketing manager for Digium, Inc.

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