Services step into limelight with net buildouts on hold

The sorry state of the telecom industry gives carriers and box builders little reason to smile, but Canada’s telcos are devising new ways for users to access voice and data services that the carriers hope will at least make their clients happy.

In light of deregulation concerns, investment woes, “capacity glut” and other nasty factors, some carriers are cutting back on capital expenditures – leaving network expansions and upgrades for a more fruitful time in the future.

“Now our investment decisions are more selective,” said Doug Westlund, AT&T Canada Inc.’s Toronto-based vice-president, data and Internet services. He explained how AT&T Canada built a “world-class platform” and is now turning its attention to things other than the backbone. The company is investing in ways to make the network the profit centre it was designed to be and entice enterprises to join its fold.

It’s time for AT&T Canada to start talking up its service offerings, said Bob Jones, the firm’s vice-president, voice products and services. “I would say, ‘sell what you have in the garage’ makes the most amount of sense.”

So what’s in the garage?

AT&T Canada is strengthening its relationship with U.S.-based AT&T Corp. to better impress big business clients, said Jones. The Canadian carrier has an agreement with the U.S. sales folks that should spell easier service provisioning for multinational firms seeking voice and data access, particularly companies with offices in both the U.S. and Canada.

“[AT&T Corp. has] roughly 7,300 sales people in the U.S.,” Jones said. “We have a program called ‘North American Voice…’ We can essentially compensate any of the U.S. sales people for business they get in Canada. It adds to the whole seamless North America issue. If you’re a customer (with locations) in both countries and you want to move traffic back and forth, or sign one contract and receive one bill, that program sets it all up.”

Jones added that the program is designed to make life easier for AT&T Canada’s clients that operate north and south of the 49 th parallel. Rather than working with the AT&T Corp. sales team in the U.S. and the AT&T Canada sales team here, customers work with one or the other to get voice and data services in both countries.

Bell Canada is focussing on “managed solutions.” According to Dave Dunphy, the firm’s Toronto-based associate director in business development planning, Bell wants to reduce network management hassles for enterprise clients.

“There are things like the Enterprise Convergent Desktop (ECD), which is really a managed IP PBX solution,” he said.

Based on Cisco Systems Inc.’s architecture for voice, video and integrated data (AVVID), the ECD box eliminates some of the work associated with voice system management, Dunphy said. It’s IP, so users need only take care of one network, rather than two separate infrastructures for voice and data. It supports unified messaging to provide single-point-of-contact functionality for end users. And the ECD spits out reports, statistics and billing information as required, making it a one-stop shop for voice communication.

“We’ll come in on a professional services arrangement, check your network, do a quality evaluation and work with you to find out the business issues you’re trying to resolve and map a plan and a strategy for you,” Dunphy said, describing Bell’s Managed Solutions portfolio, which includes the ECD. “We can then implement that and manage it. It’s outsourcing, which is really what our customers are talking about.”

Mark Quigley, an industry analyst with The Yankee Group in Canada in Ottawa said customers are talking even more about another issue: saving money.

“At this particular point in time, they’re probably not looking for much more than what they already have, unless you can give them a lot more for a lot less money. Everyone is exploring operational and capital expenditures and tightening their belts where they have to. The introduction of new services isn’t necessarily going to be all that compelling, unless you can demonstrate that there are some definite operational savings involved that do impact the bottom line.”

Tom Viersen, spokesman for Contour Telecom Inc. in Toronto, said his company can help firms increase those operational savings by shouldering some of their biggest telecom headaches. Contour acts as a broker between users and carriers that serves clients in two ways: it cuts down on the number of people enterprise telecom directors have to deal with in a day, and uses strength in numbers to lower costs for its clients.

Viersen said Contour makes life that much easier for clients seeking voice services from Canadian carriers. The company aggregates voice service bills, combining long distance and local costs from disparate providers on one piece of paper. That way, users need not contact one company to talk about long distance billing and another for voice. They only have to talk to Contour.

As well, “we also know we can save the customers a substantial amount of money – a minimum of 10 per cent and sometimes as high as 35 per cent,” Viersen said. “We have aggregation programs with all of the major telcos. We simply negotiate the best possible deal for the best service.”

Viersen said Contour gives clients the unbiased viewpoint they seek when eyeing new voice services.

But isn’t this company 100 per cent owned by AT&T Canada?

“We’re also 100 per cent separate,” Viersen said, adding that aside from funding, AT&T Canada plays no part in Contour’s operation. Besides, “we do far more business with the other telcos than we do with AT&T,” he said.

So are AT&T Canada, Bell and Contour on the right track with their focused attention on service provisioning? Judging by comments from one end user, a little bit “yes” and a world of “no.”

“I don’t know if there’s that much more I need in a phone, other than the voice mail and the phone function itself,” said Robert Buck, president of Tidemark Music and Distribution Ltd., headquartered in Halifax. “I mean, you can carry on with ‘unlimited databases’ and all this sort of stuff, but outside of that, I don’t have a whole lot of use for it other than just as a telephone.”

But Buck did say he would be interested in a unified messaging feature whereby callers caught in voice mail can be forwarded to another Tidemark employee’s phone at the push of a button.

Still, it turns out Tidemark is just like the telcos in one respect: expenses are very important to both. When it comes to new services for Buck, price is the deciding factor.

“It would depend on the cost,” he said. “Telecommunications companies have a habit of rolling out new features at expensive prices.”