The promise of Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) is a system that enables a computer to act as a call center, accepting incoming calls and routing them to the appropriate device or person. Today's CTI systems are quite sophisticated and can handle all sorts or incoming and outgoing communications, including phone calls, faxes and Internet messages.

By triggering automatic database look-ups based on the inbound calling number, and by providing other customer-service benefits, CTI has become especially popular in call-center applications. As PBXs begin to support computer-based standards such as TAPI and TSAPI, their primary function is evolving into providing links to application processors or telephony servers. These in turn are beginning to assume the role of call control. Other CTI services include:

? ACD (Automatic Call Distribution) -- a specialized form of PBX used in call centers. Provides call queuing, different agent groups and managerial information all managed and administered by computer.

? IVR (Interactive Voice Response) -- used in telephony applications in which a user interacts with a computer by pressing touch-tone keys in response to a set of recorded choices. IVR systems are used for such things as creating automated banking statement services and providing train and movie schedules. Some IVR systems can also use a text-to-voice synthesizer to increase the repertoire of responses.

? Unified Messaging -- the integration of e-mail, voice mail and fax on the computer desktop.

Case Study

One local agency that turned to a CTI solution for its telephony needs is the Area Agency on Aging of Southeast Arkansas (AAASEA), a private not-for-profit agency providing an array of services to persons in a 10-county area of Southeast Arkansas. AAASEA has been a rural transportation provider -- providing transportation services for people in the Medicaid program who have no other means of transportation -- since 1993. In 1998, AAASEA was chosen by the Arkansas Department of Human Services to serve as a Medicaid transportation broker in Arkansas. "As a 'gatekeeper' of transportation services, we have to operate a call center," explained Nick Markel, AAASEA vice president of information systems. "Our call center has four dispatchers. It was to improve and facilitate the call center that we set out to select a CTI solution."

Part of the requirements for the contract included call-center specifications such as the ability to produce reports and the ability to monitor disconnects. The rural transportation program had used a small Panasonic key system, a multiline telephone system where incoming lines appear on multiple keys on the telephone set, with a four-line hardware call sequence. According to Markel, "within a month as a Medicaid broker, they had overloaded the tiny key system and hardware sequence with calls."

During its search for a replacement system, AAASEA contacted about a dozen CTI companies to gather information about their products. In particular AAASEA was interested in ACD capabilities and voice mail, preferably with e-mail integration. The organization also required the system to work in a Centrex environment since it was going to be a second-level system within the organization. It chose a system from AltiGen. As Markel explained, "We went with the AltiGen Open Edition 2.1 product because we wanted a system that we could purchase directly. We maintain a full-time computer and telephone department. We were not interested in involving an outside vendor. We also wanted a system that could integrate with our Microsoft Exchange e-mail server."

AAASEA built a rack mount, passive-backplane system with redundant power, a Pentium II-300MHz CPU, 128MB of RAM, and mirrored 4.3GB drives. "The AltiGen system has allowed us to more accurately control our incoming calls with its very versatile queuing capabilities," Markel said. "Our dispatchers are more productive because of the ease of use of the AltiGen system. Members of our dispatcher workgroup can use a standard Web browser to view the number of