Sprint adds new interactive toll-free service to FTS 2000

Sprint began offering last month a new interactive toll-free service on FTS 2000 to allow agencies to provide 24-hour automated information to callers in a more efficient manner.

The service, known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR), is already being installed in pilot tests at the Veterans Benefits Administration.

A Sprint spokesman said IVR responds to callers' Touch-Tone and voice commands and connects callers to a variety of databases in different locations through selections on an automated menu.

Susan Young, Sprint's senior federal account executive for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the service offers newer technology than had previously been available on the FTS 2000 network. She said the new system allows Sprint to create interfaces between agencies' existing host systems and the company's IVR for real-time access to government databases. Young said the system also offers "speech to text" service, which will help disabled veterans and others who cannot use Touch-Tone services.

Jim Payne, Sprint's assistant vice president for FTS 2000, said the service will be available to all users of the General Services Administration's FTS 2000 long-distance network, even those who have been assigned to AT&T's portion of that network. He said AT&T currently does not offer an interactive toll-free service with the capabilities of Sprint's, and six organizations on AT&T's network have requested the Sprint service.

"[AT&T's] customers are coming to us and saying they want these features," Payne said. "The new FTS 2000 environment is not about mandatory use; it's about offering the best service to the customer. This is a wake-up call to AT&T."

An AT&T spokeswoman said her company has offered the service since 1994 under its InfoWorx product line, which she said is more reliable than Sprint's system. She said mandatory users of AT&T's FTS 2000 services are not allowed to use Sprint's service under the terms of the contract.

Carolyn Thomas, director of GSA's service oversight center for Sprint's FTS 2000 network, said AT&T's service is "very, very similar" to the one announced by Sprint. But she added that Sprint's service differs from AT&T's when combined with the other services Sprint offers. She said agencies on AT&T's network that use these combined services can apply to GSA for a waiver that, if approved, would allow them to use Sprint's service.

In a VBA pilot begun last month in Iowa, callers have access to information on the benefits and services offered by the agency and personal information about recurring benefits payments and the Montgomery GI Bill.

Dick Culp, director of telecommunications at the VBA, said the system will allow the agency to extend its service operation to 24 hours a day, while veterans will retain the option to speak with counselors during regular business hours. He said he hopes to use the system to help the VBA streamline its benefits-delivery processes.

"This pilot was designed to improve customer service in the face of rapidly declining resources," Culp said. "We have never had enough people to answer the call demand."

The Sprint spokesman said the service is unique because the equipment on which it is based is built into Sprint's network and does not require agencies to buy on-site switching equipment for routing calls and connecting to databases.

Sprint selected Microlog Corp., Germantown, Md., to provide its Intela platform to serve as the system's host interface. Later this year Sprint will add features— such as fax processing and computer telephony integration— to the system.

Young said Sprint will charge 15 cents per call and will require no up-front investment from agencies.

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