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Optus shows off real-time call translation smarts

The Australian telco has bigger plans to make its network more open to enable developers to build and integrate new services into phone calls

Australia’s second largest telco, Optus, has found a way to translate phone calls made between two people speaking in different languages in real time.

Dubbed Voice Genie, the capability was showed off during Red Hat Summit 2019 in Boston, US, where a staged conversation in English and French between Optus engineers Vasily Chekalkin and Guillaume Poulet-Mathis were translated back and forth on the fly.

Poulet-Mathis, senior innovation manager at Optus, said the translation capability was made possible by abstracting the underlying telecoms infrastructure to open up opportunities for third-party developers to build and integrate new services into traditional phone calls.

The impetus for Voice Genie came from a desire to tap the same voice capabilities being used by chatbots and personal assistants in phone calls, which Poulet-Mathis said were still about “wires and switches”.

“We have the capability to establish and carry native phone calls over cell towers and fibre networks, but the mindset on phone calls hasn’t changed,” he added.

But baking new services, including voice recognition services from cloud suppliers, into phone calls poses challenges. For one, telcos have to deliver a consistent quality of service for consumers who would not tolerate dropped calls.

There is also a need to minimise the latency of a phone call, more so in a country as big as continental Australia where callers could be located thousands of kilometres apart.

To avoid additional latency during a call, Poulet-Mathis said “we must be able virtualise media functions on the same path as the call and that brings additional challenges”.

Chekalkin, principal software engineer at Optus, added that developers also would need an easy way to package, deploy, maintain and update their software in a portable format across different geographical locations.

“And from a carrier point of view, you want reliability and support,” he added.

The Optus engineers found the solution in Red Hat’s OpenShift container platform. Chekalkin said virtualised network functions are packaged into containers, which are then distributed across Optus’s telephone exchanges.

“By doing so, we get the benefits of a single platform to build, scale and monitor our software,” he said. “We do all of these while introducing a repeatable software development lifecycle for future innovation.”

Poulet-Mathis added that by abstracting the complexities of its telecoms network and harnessing software advances, Optus was opening a safe environment for developers to build, deploy and operate a new breed of telco applications. “This is a unique opportunity to uplift legacy equipment into the digital age.”

While it is uncertain when Optus’s real-time call translation smarts will reach the hands of consumers, the company’s goal is to build services in the same way mobile apps are developed today.

“If our network becomes more open, we have these opportunities to leverage this network to try to build new products, and there are plenty of products that we are also working on that are based on this idea that we can build products like people build apps,” Poulet-Mathis told TheCube in a separate interview on the sidelines of the event.

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