IRS sends forms with TaxFax

IRS sends forms with TaxFax

World's largest fax-back system had 96 percent success rate during tax season

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

Taxpayers requested about 3 million pages of tax forms, schedules and instructions from an IRS fax-back system from last December through April, an average of more than 80,000 calls a week.

In June, well after the deadline for filing returns, the IRS TaxFax system still received 40,000 calls. 'And that's a slow month,' said Kim Harris, TaxFax program manager at the National Technical Information Service. 'It's the largest fax-back system in the world.'

Callers to the IRS TaxFax system dial a voice server and select documents from a menu. The server ships the documents to a fax
server that sends them to the caller.

Late last year, TaxFax was upgraded from an analog predecessor to a digital system from FaxBack Inc. of Tigard, Ore. A dozen T1 lines feed 288 telephone lines into a cluster of servers running Microsoft Windows NT at an NTIS site in Manassas, Va.

About 96 percent of TaxFax callers succeeded in ordering documents during the last tax season, better than the rate at the IRS Web site.

Servers are standing by

A caller dials a voice server and makes document selections from a menu. Then a file server delivers the documents to a fax server that sends them down the line to the caller.

'The complicated part is handling all three parts of the system well,' said Jim Mueller, president of FaxBack. All 288 ports must operate reliably enough to satisfy harried taxpayers calling at 11 p.m. on April 14.

NTIS, the TaxFax host, is a Commerce Department agency that hosts the IRS Web site and provides services to other federal agencies. It installed the digital system in October after the analog system was overwhelmed at the peak of last year's tax season.

Twelve T1 lines from GTE Corp. are easier to manage than the 200 individual telephone lines of the old system, Harris said.

FaxBack supplied the hardware: 12 Compaq Computer Corp. systems with 24 fax-phone ports each. Any desktop machine with at least 64M of RAM per port can support such a system, Mueller said. Each server runs interactive FaxBack voice response software that provides the voice menu, the document catalog and the fax server software to deliver the documents. A telephone switch performs any necessary load balancing on the T1 lines.

Overbuilding TaxFax to meet peak demand and having unused capacity the rest of the year was not a concern, Harris said.

'The tax season is a lot longer than one month,' she said. It begins in the final months of a year and lasts until the following April. The extended-filing deadline in August creates a secondary peak in the summer, and many businesses file reports monthly.

TaxFax is a little unusual because it is a single-call system. A caller dials the TaxFax number at 703-368-9694 from a fax machine, and the requested document is faxed back during the same call.

'It's on your nickel,' Harris said. 'IRS does this intentionally' to avoid abuse of a toll-free number. 'It's a security measure, basically.'

It also improves customer satisfaction, Mueller said. The documents arrive immediately, and the caller does not have to wait for a return call while documents pile up in queue.

Because of the single-call feature, 'it's a little more complex on our part,' Mueller said. On a two-call system, one machine can receive the call while a second faxes back. But TaxFax integrates voice and fax software on the same server, because there is no way to transfer the line from one machine to another.

Job one

Documents are stored on each server, as well as on a central file server for backup. Keeping documents current is the No. 1 chore on most fax-back systems, and out-of-date documents are the primary cause of customer dissatisfaction, Mueller said.

'IRS does not have a document problem,' he said.

Despite the large volume, TaxFax has a fixed, relatively small catalog of about 200 documents, most of which do not change more than once a year. They are published in Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format on CD-ROMs to populate the file servers.

Although the TaxFax success rate for document requesters was 96 percent, the overall success rate was somewhat lower, because some callers always drop out when they learn they must call from a fax machine.

Around April 17, this year's filing deadline, some callers heard busy signals, so more lines probably will be added for next year.

'We're trying to build so we have no busy signals, or very few,' Harris said.


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