Bell Atlantic tests voice-based tech for call routing

Bell Atlantic Federal Systems has begun beta tests of a new voice recognition system that will automatically connect callers to specific employees within federal agencies by prompting the caller to say the employee's name.

Alexander McAllister, a member of the technical staff at Bell Atlantic Federal, said the technology behind the company's BA Dialer outstrips current applications by letting users route calls to up to 20,000 employees within an organization. He said future versions of the system should allow agencies to give callers options to connect to external databases in order to contact even more employees.

McAllister said the beta agencies hope to use BA Dialer to improve customer service and to cut the number of employees needed to answer and route phone calls throughout an agency.

He added that Bell Atlantic's own test of the technology within its federal division has proved helpful in keeping track of new additions to the company's phone directory and changing numbers when people move to new offices.

"With our merger [with Nynex] and general attrition, we have a fair amount of churn," he said, noting that about 300 names and numbers change each week within the company's phone directory. "The Dialer makes the changes transparent to the caller. I've called people whom I thought were in our Silver Spring [Md.] office and found out they are in Arlington [Va.]."

A Bell Atlantic spokeswoman said three federal agencies are conducting beta tests of the system, but she declined to name the agencies. The company expects to complete the tests and begin offering the service to agencies late this fall.

Toni Lewis Hazelwood, executive assistant to the deputy administrator of the General Services Administration, said officials there have expressed a strong interest in the BA Dialer service for local and possible national applications, but Hazelwood declined to comment further on the system.

The voice recognition component of the system was developed by Nuance Communications, Menlo Park, Calif. A spokesman for the company said a similar system his company developed for the Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. brokerage has proven 95 percent accurate in its ability to recognize, and respond to, voice commands.

The spokesman said the Nuance system has not been tested in directories of more than 17,000 names, but he said he believes the system will be able to handle the large directories of Bell Atlantic's federal customers. "The system is scalable and can handle more names without diminishing the accuracy," he said. "Presumably, you do hit a wall at some point [with large directories] where accuracy may go down a bit. But we haven't hit that wall yet."

The BA Dialer runs on a client/server architecture, and it can be installed on a single machine or disbursed across the network. The system consists of three components: a client piece to answer and transfer calls, a recognition center that converts voice signals into a digital stream and a database.

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