Bell Atlantic adds voice recognition tech

Bell Atlantic Federal plans to announce the availability of a new voice recognition telephone directory system at this week's FOSE '99 conference.

The new product, Connect@once, will allow federal users to call into a central phone number and speak the name of any user on the system. Connect@once will recognize the name and direct the caller to that person or to the person's voice mailbox. Company officials said the system can easily handle directories of 16,000 names, and a pilot system in place within Bell Atlantic Federal has been tested with 19,000 users.

J.J. Eidsness, senior manager for product management at Bell Atlantic Federal, said the system would be ideal for agencies that want to save the time and money associated with the manual distribution of paper directories. He added that Connect@once also should appeal to visually and physically impaired users as well as federal employees who do a lot of business in their cars.

"It works very fast - 15 seconds vs. a couple of minutes looking up numbers in paper directories," Eidsness said.

The Connect@once software, developed by Bell Atlantic, runs on a Unix-based server. A fully equipped system for 2,500 users will cost about $65,000, while a 15,000-user version will sell for about $152,000. Agencies also may order Bell Atlantic's three-year administration plan for management and maintenance of the system. The plan costs $40,000 for a 2,500-user system and $117,000 for 15,000 users.

Eidsness said the company is negotiating to make Connect@once available through its General Services Administration schedule.

Alexander McAllister, manager of technical development at Bell Atlantic Federal, said the product was tested last year by personnel at the headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said the VA trial covered 3,500 users at seven locations in the Washington, D.C., area.

McAllister said Connect@once "worked very well" at the VA, with 90 percent of the calls made through the system accurately connected to the appropriate destination on the first try.

VA officials were not available to comment on the trial.

Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department, said he was briefed on Connect@once by Bell Atlantic last year and is interested in looking at the final version of the product, particularly as a means to help his employees who have disabilities.

"It offers a whole lot of advantages for people with disabilities, sight impairment and limited mobility," Hobbs said. "The key folks in the disability community [at the USDA] are looking at it."

Hobbs added that the system could offer other potential benefits, such as eliminating paper-based directories, which he said typically are obsolete the day they are issued. He also believes users throughout the department would find such a system extremely convenient.

"The unique thing is that I wouldn't have to remember anyone's phone number in our D.C. offices," he said.

A Bell Atlantic spokeswoman said Connect@once includes a "cascading" feature that would allow large agencies to connect systems together. For example, a caller to an Air Force base could speak the name of another Air Force facility and be connected to the Connect@once system servicing that other facility, she said.

McAllister said Bell Atlantic Federal is continuing to work on adding features to the system. He said the company is looking at ways to offer instructions to users who get on the system and "show confusion," he said.

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