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Cable Can Exploit E-Commerce Apps

A surge in the use of packet voice communications in
electronic commerce underscored anew the fact that cable interests have immediate
opportunities to exploit that technology as they wait to use it in first-line
phone-service applications.

The shift to delivering residential telephony via Internet
protocol is well off in the future, but technology is at hand that can give
cable-data-service providers a clear advantage over narrowband-service providers as
IP-voice applications become commonplace.

For example, by using software now available from Salem,
N.H.-based PakNetX Corp., cable operators could provide their online customers with a
means of talking to service representatives as they troubleshoot problems, without having
to make phone calls.

Chris Botting, vice president of marketing at PakNetX -- a
company devoted to supplying flexible, software-based solutions in the
voice-over-e-commerce niche -- reported strong interest among Internet-service providers
in his company's wares, although he declined to name potential customers.

"We're early in the marketplace, offering a
software-only solution that's ideal for ISPs doing Web hosting in e-commerce,"
Botting said.

"As a software switch, our product can be anywhere you
have a [Microsoft Corp. Windows] NT server or a Pentium II processor, so there's no
extra hardware to install," he added.

With IP now embedded in backbones, end-to-end IP
connectivity provides the opportunity to process voice calling without having to deal with
gateways and traditional switches, Botting said.

This means that the ACD (automated call-distribution)
function, linking callers to customer-service agents, can be integrated right into the
IP-voice software. This allows the existing data-network infrastructure to take care of
all of the trafficking requirements and the end-user personal computers to take care of
the processing required to translate sound signals into IP packets.

Using PakNetX products, Web-site hosts can put
"connect-me buttons" on their Web pages, providing e-commerce surfers with
IP-voice connections to live agents at call-service bureaus that are tied into the
software platform.

Any user who has Microsoft's "NetMeeting"
software, which comes bundled with the latest version of the Windows operating system, can
take advantage of the voice-connection option, as well as the rich data-collaboration
capabilities that come with NetMeeting, Botting said.

Such capabilities mark a turning point in voice-over-IP
applications, where the former hobbyist concept of personal computer-to-PC voice
connections is entering mainstream Web commerce.

These capabilities also go hand-in-hand with applications
that interface with switched-circuit telephone networks, where gateway translators are
required to interface IP with the pulse-code mode of the circuit domain.

For example, as is the case with the application marketed
by ISP IDT Corp., the gateways might be located off-premises at the ISP's facilities,
so that incoming IP-based calls are translated to circuit mode and sent through local
public-telephone switches to the call-center reps.

IDT, through the "Click-to-Talk" component of its
"Net2Phone" IP-telephony service, now has more than 100 commercial clients
offering Web shoppers this option at their sites, including Lands' End Inc., 800
Flowers Inc. and IBM Corp., said Jordan Katz, IDT's director of interactive services.

"Click-to-Talk gives vendors the opportunity to put a
communications link on their Web sites that allows customers to launch a toll-free call
from anywhere in the world," Katz said. "The service gives our e-commerce
customers much greater reach globally by allowing users anywhere to access the
[seller's] domestic 800 number."

While the user must download the 1-megabyte Net2Phone
software to take advantage of the click-through option, people overseas don't mind
the wait, given the savings involved, Katz said. Moreover, he added, existing Net2Phone
users Stateside, as well as outside of the United States, also have the advantage of being
able to link up directly with service reps while they're online.

Other, more traditional carriers are beginning to provide
this type of capability with their Web-hosting services, including MCI WorldCom and
Ameritech Corp.

"We have a number of vendor partners that offer
software and hardware products that we can apply in our 'Ameritech Call Center
Solutions' portfolio, including click-to-talk and push-to-talk," said Rob
Lanesey, spokesman for Ameritech.

The push-to-talk application involves a situation where the
call-center rep gets on a standard dial-up call with the Web shopper, allowing the rep to
answer questions as the shopper sorts through the on-screen options.

In some instances, software solutions allow the rep to work
on-screen with the user in real time as they talk, either over a standard telephone hookup
or an IP-voice connection.

One of Ameritech's vendor partners and a leader in
providing call-center e-commerce voice solutions is eFusion Inc. Ken Pawlak, director of
market development for IP voice at eFusion, said the key to wider use of IP voice in
e-commerce is greater recognition among Web-site operators of the importance of allowing
online customers to get to agents.

"Studies show that two-thirds of all people who fill
up a shopping cart online abandon the site before actually making the purchase," he

Despite frustration at seeing "a whole lot more trials
and expensive testing than I'd like to see," Pawlak believes that the adoption
of Web-based connectivity between customers and call agents is set to take off.

"The flow of RFPs [requests for proposals] has
increased dramatically, and we're seeing a lot of consulting firms installing the
technology in demonstration sites so that they can show their customers how to take
advantage of these capabilities," he said.

With cable operators moving into local Web-site hosting as
part of their data businesses, the opportunity to add calling capabilities to local
applications, as well as to nationally based commerce sites, is especially strong given
the higher quality of IP voice made possible by high-speed connections.

With off-the-shelf tools available, the issue isn't
technical wherewithal anymore: It's merely a matter of recognizing that IP telephony
is about much more than competing with the local telco.