Meet 'Cloud Telephony,' 'Voice Broadcast'

When you need to blast a message to massive numbers, or gather incoming info from countless callers, IP-based CallFire handles the traffic.

By Adam Stone | Posted Oct 30, 2008
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In California, supporters of gay marriage have been working the phones hard, making million of calls in anticipation of an upcoming ballot measure. For NoOnProp8.org, the call center of choice is Los Angeles-based CallFire, living proof that open source can deliver a cheap and highly effective means of reaching out.

Founded in the summer of 2006, the voice broadcast product is popular with political groups, schools, emergency services, and others. CEO and co-founder Dinesh Ravishanker claims some 7,000 registrants and 2,000 active users.

The system is based on Asterisk Auto Dialer and Asterisk Predictive Dialer. These ready-to-use open source tools make it possible to bring down costs considerably, Ravishanker said, with some users paying two and a half to 10 times less than they had been with big-carrier proprietary services.

The system has muscle, with the capacity to dial over 4 million numbers a day.

The open-source IP architecture also enables rapid scaling, Ravishanker said. In crunch time, the system that can handle spikes of thousands of calls per minute thanks to the scalability inherent in Asterisk.

The system allows for a rapid pace of calling thanks to various automated tools. For example, a user can pre-configure a message. Then if an answering machine picks up, CallFire will leave that message on the machine even as the caller moves on to the next call.

In keeping with the platform's own flexibility, CallFire tries to deliver a flexible user experience. There is no setup fee, no contract or commitment. The average call costs 3.5 cents a minute, incoming or outgoing.

CallFire is not alone in the field. Competitors include Angel.com and five9.com.

Ravishanker is looking to versatility as a differentiator. For example, while outgoing calls would seem the obvious use for what is essentially a pay-as-you-go call center, incoming calls also play a role in the CallFire business model.

In the run-up to the election, Ravishanker said, both major parties have been making use of the inbound capability. Volunteers may be out canvassing, for example, and with an automated script they can quickly and efficiently call their results back into the hands of planners at headquarters.

The Internet-centric non-profit MoveOn.org is currently using a similar CallFire inbound reporting system in support of the Obama campaign.

The software also has been designed with higher-end interactions in mind. While end users are busy dialing, developers can do their part behind the scenes, using a variety of CallFire APIs to augment broadcasting and call center features. The company web site makes available developer tutorials and code examples.

This ability to customize helps end users who access the software through resellers. Working through CallFire's white label program, these resellers often will take it upon themselves to custom configure the software to meet the needs of particular clients.

Even with all these bases covered, Ravishanker has his worries, especially when it comes to quality of service, which in VoIP is "all about the network," as he put it. Sooner or later his calls must travel over major-carrier lines and Ravishanker is eager to ensure that signal travels well.

To this end, CallFire developers are in constant contact with their counterparts among the carriers, working to organize appropriate load balancing of powerful spikes across multiple providers.

"Once our system architects work directly with these carriers to make sure our networks are communicating very quickly, that's when we are able provide high level quality of service," he said.

Cheap, practical: You'd think that would do the trick. But Ravishanker says the company still faces at least one other major hurdle. The difficulty lies within the very nature of the VoIP marketplace, which is, in Ravishanker's estimation, a muddle.

"The telephony space is such a broad market. You can pretty much find applications for our technology in many, many verticals, so there is some problem in how to market your services so that end users can understand how you add value."

In short, a muddle. There are simply too many products parading around under the same set of labels, using the same vocabulary. It's tough for the average midsized-business owner to know just what is being offered.

Often it comes down to functionality, the pairing of a desired task with a proffered capability.

"People come to us and they say, 'We want to make fun stuff happen,' and that is how the conversation starts out. 'Fun stuff,'" Ravishanker said.

To help clarify the situation, CallFire has been putting up case studies on its web site and looking for other ways to help consumers get sorted. "Right now it is an education process. We are probably going to be embracing our blog, embracing webinars more and more, as a way of educating people."

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