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Communications portal. What does that mean? If you think of Internet telephony service providers such as Net2Phone Inc. (www.net2phone.com) and PhoneFree.com (www.phonefree.com), you’d be right–at least under the strictest definition.

Certainly by now, Webster’s wordsmiths would have added a few more entries, including unified messaging and collaborative communications providers.

But experts say that even this broadened interpretation falls short of capturing the label’s full intent, which might be described as “personalized communications session management,” to borrow the term of IDC analyst Mark Winther.

In all fairness to our readers and etymologists alike, this definition of the “communications portal” does not yet exist in a commercially available form (although some upstarts are close). What does exist is an opportunity for telecom service providers to embrace a truly sticky, revenue-generating service delivery model.

Opening Market Opportunities

In the simplest of terms, the communications portal market includes those companies enabling basic or enhanced communications services to be accessed via a web-user interface, according to U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray (www.piperjaffray.com) equity researchers Paul A. Boruta and Andrew Schroepfer (who has since left the company).

“Admittedly, making phone calls from one’s own computer is not the Holy Grail of communications,” they note. “However, given the growth of the Internet and its convergence with communications, the significant number of new enhanced services over a PC interface validates an exciting and dynamic market opportunity for communications portals.”

They claim that among the advantages of the portal strategy are higher service adoption rates due to web-user sophistication and repeated exposure to service options. “One big thing risked by not having one’s own portal is that services are so much more likely to be adopted in the web environment,” they state in their report on communications service providers.

In addition, Schroepfer and Boruta note that service providers can improve cost structures by aggregating presentation, delivery and support for IP-based communications services.

The basic communications portal strategy has been adopted by at least three distinct groups–providers of net telephony, unified messaging and collaborative tools–each of which offers a menu of communications capabilities to the user (see “Commu- nications Portal Providers” table). While each group offers a different core service, they have begun to borrow from each other’s bag of tricks.

PC-to-phone calling providers, for instance, are “adding communications services such as conference calling, text chat, instant mail and unified messaging,” observes IDC analyst Elizabeth Farrand.

Despite the growing value proposition, early entrants have suffered an ailment common to most startups–anonymity. To overcome this problem, most have adopted a free service model and a viral marketing strategy. In some cases, this has met with remarkable results. Dialpad.com Inc. (www.dialpad.com), for example, reported 10 million users within a year of its launch. But alas, 10 million times $0 is still $0, so portals have had to develop and entice users with premium services on a pay-per-use or subscription basis. While a domestic Internet call might be free, for example, an international one will carry a per-minute rate. Similarly, a paid web meeting might offer duration and participant options not available from the free trial service.

These tiered pricing models have improved the financial picture for some portal providers. According to IDC, nearly half–$96.3 million–of all revenues were attributable to premium services. Ultimately, many ventures have had to turn to selling their technology or platforms. Most net telephony providers, for instance, will voice enable any corporate website or web storefront for real-time customer service.

Increasingly, however, the selling has been to companies–telcos, ISPs, Internet portals, and computer hardware and software makers–that are in a much better position to leverage enhanced IP services into an established customer base.

Patent-pending collaboration tools and IP-based network of WebEx Commu- nications Inc. (www.webex.com) are being used by telecom giant AT&T Corp. (www.att.com) for its new AT&T Web Meeting Service launched in late August. The company has a similar deal with Internet portal Yahoo! Inc. (www.yahoo.com).

Service providers are not the only ones getting in on the game. Hardware manufacturer U.S. Robotics Inc. (www.usrobotics.com) announced in October that it is bundling voice calling from Net2Phone and call management from BuzMe.com Inc. (www.buzme.com) into its Internet Call Modem.

Such a partnership provides multiple benefits, says Aurica Yen, a consumer market analyst from the Yankee Group (www.yankeegroup.com). “Besides providing guaranteed revenue sources to the two [service providers], the bundling of capabilities into hardware is a low-cost tactic to reach and to educate end users, not to mention utilizing third-party brand strength,” Yen says.

While co-branding and alternate channels are respectable strategies for distribution, the resulting service offerings are a click-to-use icon or computer key here and there. Adoption of the “communications portal” strategy itself has not yet occurred outside the small but growing list of entrepreneurial providers.

This may be due to a shortsighted view of the technology’s potential.

IDC analyst Winther says that its value lies “not in voice chat, price arbitrage plays, communications features in service of advertising or product sales,” but in web-powered communications. “This,” he says, “leverages the capabilities of the Internet–easy-to-use graphical interface, efficient one-click access to anything, universal browser and universal IP infrastructure–to improve users’ control over their communications and messaging services.”

To illustrate this vision, Winther explains that in the same way that users can create a personalized home page on their Internet portal, such as Yahoo! or America Online Inc. (www.aol.com), they will create and “use a personal communications hub to define the treatment of their incoming and outgoing communications based on where they are and who is calling or messaging.”

Personalization

The development of a personal communications hub is at the core of a new strategy called Service Agency being tendered by Ellacoya Networks Inc. (www.ellacoya.com). The Service Agency model seamlessly connects customers with network, content and application partners. To facilitate this strategy, the company has created what it calls the Service Generation System. SGS is a directory-based platform that serves as an overlay to a service provider’s existing broadband network and enables them to offer services through a portal on an individualized, self-service basis.

The SGS can customize services by demographic, community of interest or to the individual user. A building-centric LEC (BLEC), for example, can tailor services to the type of businesses or consumers it serves. An optical software engine called PAD (personal application desktop) creates personalized user service portals. When a user logs on, the dynamic portal generator retrieves portal elements based on subscriber information stored in the directory and renders them on the fly.

“When you have static portals, the hardship is that you have to rebuild it for each customer,” says Bill Clark, director of product management for Ellacoya. In contrast, Ellacoya allows the user interface to be rendered in real time, “relieving a tremendous support burden from the service provider’s shoulders.”

Furthermore, a GUI for provisioning literally allows a provider to drag and drop to create service bundles for an enterprise client (see Service Creation Manager screen shot). Users also have the ability to enable or disable functions.

The Service Agency model hinges on bringing in best-of-breed providers to the table. To this end, Ellacoya also has assembled ASP Partners to provide immediate service options for its service provider customers. Inaugural members of the program, which was unveiled in mid-October, represent partners, such as Sylantro Systems (www.sylantro.com), that are focused on communications enhancing applications. Directory services and Internet telephony, as well as news, video and business productivity applications, are additional options.

By combining all of these functionalities, the communications portal is transformed into the user’s preferred desktop, rather than a website to which the user must decide to go. Ellacoya is working on integrating icons for software resident in the PC or LAN onto the interface.

The presentation and delivery of services to a business or property also offers revenue assurances to service providers that are not inherent in the original communications portal model. Service providers can charge based on a base package plus usage without being pressured into the free service model.

Further, notes IDC analyst Winther, integrating virtual PBX features along with personalization, directories and content will enhance the customer relationship and increase the cost of switching.

Ubiquity

While the web is a key and primary interface through which a communications portal will be accessed, ubiquity resulting from device independence is paramount to success, asserts Aymar de Lencquesaing, president of HotVoice Communications International Inc. (www.hotvoice.com). The communications ASP has built a platform and worldwide network from which it enables other customer-facing companies to offer a suite of services, such as Internet telephony, unified messaging, instant messaging and follow-me services.

He explains that a communications portal must offer a web, wireless and PSTN interface. “There are arguments as to whether handheld [e.g., personal digital assistants] or handsets [e.g., cellular] will win. To me it does not matter; service providers need to make service available to people how they want it,” he says.

Winther says a user or service provider can determine which access/transport network will be used based on consideration of such issues as quality, business rules, footprint and cost. He also notes that deployment of effective voice recognition and text-to-speech technologies will improve accessibility of services from a phone.

De Lencquesaing says that emerging presence management techniques will enable a whole new set of features. By establishing presence, he says, users know if and when people come into the portal for instant conversation through voice or text. A user can increase the success of his communication by merging presence management with calendaring and call routing applications, he adds. On the horizon, a geographic positioning system (GPS) will further automate presence management by tracking the user by geographic location as well as device.

Positioning

As telecom service providers deploy (or retrofit) IP-based networks, they are in a unique position to capitalize on the communications portal opportunity, but they will not be unchallenged.

Existing entrepreneurial communications portals, ISPs and Internet portals have the advantage of a more developed web presence and, in the case of national ISPs and the portals, a sizable customer base.

Computer hardware and software providers also represent potential competitors by virtue of their ability to embed communications features into hardware and software that is being distributed to web-savvy users.

PhonemagTeam

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