BY GARY PERILLOUX
TUPELO – The communication wave of the future is virtually boundless, limited only by the power of software to send voice and data splashing around the globe.
Amazing enough is the supercharged ability to communicate right here at home.
A case in point came in October, when NBC television affiliate WTVA rolled out an experimental approach to gathering voting results the night of a statewide election. Calls came pouring in from country courthouses across north Mississippi and the station wanted a more sophisticated way of handling every call.
Tupelo telecommunications company Select Connect had answered the call months earlier when lightning damaged the phone system for WTVA, Fox affiliate WLOV and ABC station WKDH at their Beech Springs Road studios.
A wireless patch temporarily connected the stations to Select Connect's gateway as a CLEC, or competitive local exchange carrier tied into BellSouth's transmission network.
What happened next allowed the TV stations to work wonders come election night.
Virtual call center
Select Connect established a virtual call center on election night, creating a one-time 1-800 number and routing all elections calls past the stations' main number for immediate answering.
An automated attendant set up for the night answered all calls and routed them to the appropriate news person.
“We had the whole system set up in 30 minutes or less,” said Joe Moffatt of Select Connect. “It was just absolutely fascinating to see it happen because the call volume was just unbelievable.”
Security was layered onto convenience.
“They didn't want to give out extension numbers, so we made up fictional extension numbers,” said Select Connect manager Chuck Moffatt. “It was a mini-call center.”
The bottom line meant quicker election results posted for viewers and a smoother night for the broadcasters. For Select Connect, the night offered a showcase for what Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, phone systems can do.
When election night ended, Select Connect dismantled the ad hoc call center, packed up laptops and headed home.
More challenges to come.
One of the biggest challenges of VoIP service lies in getting the word out to potential customers, among them business users and residential customers.
Because VoIP is Internet-based, a company with multiple sales offices, say in Tupelo, Columbus, Germantown, Tenn., Atlanta and New Orleans can connect any incoming call to any of the sales offices with a click of the mouse and the cost of local phone services.
The Internet gateway avoids toll charges for such interconnected systems.
There are internal advantages, too.
At the TV stations, for example, receptionist Tammy Jones can view the status of all phone extensions on a flat-panel computer screen and connect a caller by clicking onto an extension icon on the computer screen.
No need to punch buttons on the phone.
Heavily wired phones lines and costly maintenance inside the office isn't needed, either.
Phone traffic is routed to Select Connect's office via the Internet. And all the phone switching equipment is housed at that company, with a current capacity of more than 100,000 users.
“If a customer needs something done, it's a software change at our office and not a truck roll,” said Chuck Moffatt. “It saves a lot of money.”
The VoIP part of the telecommunications system isn't now regulated, and the Moffatts see no need for such regulation because they're aren't in fact short-circuiting the phone process.
“No sir, we're not,” Chuck Moffatt said. “Because the calls made in our system come back through our office and go out over a switch to the phone company.”
A brand new window of VoIP opportunity is opening up now for residential users.
Beginning in late 2003, Select Connect begin providing phone service on a new medium: cable TV.
The cable guys
Through consulting with its technology partner, Vocal Data of Dallas, Select Connect recently rolled out an all-in-one gateway/router box.
The box hooks up to the modem box used by cable TV companies, splitting TV and voice signals and tying the customer to Select Connects VoIP phone system over the Internet.
Select Connect has begun installing the phone boxes, with permission of Comcast, as that company's Internet cable customers want more functionality, Chuck Moffatt said.
The result is a customer who can receive TV, phone and Internet service through a single major medium, the type of seamless communications possibilities long dreamed of since the dot.com revolution arrived more than a decade ago.
Comcast spokeswoman Patricia Collins said the company sells broadband Internet, with download speeds of 3 megabytes per second, for $44.95 in the Tupelo market. Recent systemwide fiber-optic upgrades enabled the company to roll out that service in October.
“It's an excellent service, it's very fast … and you don't need a phone line,” she said. “Therefore, you don't get a busy signal. You're always connected and our customers love the service.”
Although high-speed Internet cable service typically costs more than $40 – similar to other broadband Internet providers – the cable gateway can usher in cost savings for users who want faster Internet service.
For $25, cable phone users can gain unlimited local and regional calling within a 55-mile radius and 500 long distance minutes. A 911 charge of slightly more than $1 applies, as it does on conventional phone service, but there are no sales taxes, network access charges or federal taxes.
For $35, cable phone users can get unlimited calling including long distance and free caller ID, call forwarding, three-way calling and voice mail.
Such advantages have others scrutinizing cable phone service.
Future of cable
Atlanta-based Vista Media has all 27,000 of its cable customers in Northeast Mississippi, where it's envisioning major new features in 2004.
Among them is VoIP phone service via Vista cable.
By September, it will have all customers upgraded for two-way cable modems offering 1.5 megabytes per second on downloads and 256 kilobytes per second on uploads, 10 to 50 times dialup connection speeds.
“This is the logical next step,” Vista Media's Roger Shearer said, referring to VoIP phone service. “And I'm just thrilled with it because of the interactivity between your PC and your telephone. The possibilities are unlimited.”
Comcast's Collins said her company is test-marketing VoIP phone service and will roll out service in-house when it's convinced of the service's quality.
Shearer said his customers, who range from Marshall to Monroe counties, all will have access to VoIP by year's end.
That service may or may not be provided in conjunction with Select Connect, but Shearer said his discussions with the Tupelo company have been positive and fruitful.
“I've been impressed with Chuck Moffatt and his knowledge of the product,” Shearer said. “He's got great enthusiasm, and we certainly will discuss it with him again.”
The possibilities are, well, as wide and essential as water itself.
“The high-speed Internet is becoming a utility,” Joe Moffatt said. “It's becoming as valuable as energy and water.”