Microsoft offers voice over IP

You're online checking e-mail and browsing sites, and people calling you hear a busy signal or your voice mail. If you like that, read no further. If not, then you're in luck.

Microsoft has joined with Nortel Networks to jump into the Internet call waiting business with MSN Internet Call Waiting (MSN ICW), a service for MSN Internet Access subscribers.

The service is now available in Atlanta, San Diego, and Seattle. It will roll out in 50 major US metropolitan areas within the next six months, according to Diane McDade, MSN.com spokesperson.

Other Internet caller ID services are already in the market. There's CallWave, which displays ads and lets you hear who calls so you can log off and return the call. Or you can choose devices like Actiontec Electronics' 56K bits per second Call Waiting Modem, which lets you talk with your caller for a few seconds, then either take the call or stay online.

Here's how Microsoft's ICW service works. You're online, someone calls, and a pop-up window appears on your screen with the caller's name and number. Then you'll have about 20 seconds to choose between taking the call by phone or on your computer, forwarding the call to another number, or playing a message to the caller.

Microsoft's service is unique in offering to forward a call to, say, a cellular phone, McDade says. "It's complete management."

Microsoft touts MSN ICW as an alternative to a second phone line, which typically costs between $US15 and $25 monthly. MSN ICW service costs between $4.95 and $5.95, depending on your location.

To use MSN ICW, you'll need call forward busy service from your phone company (which costs about $3 to $5 per month) and a multimedia PC. To talk using the voice-over-IP feature, you need Microsoft NetMeeting, free on Microsoft's Web site. It essentially enables the transfer of your voice data to the Nortel product, says Lisa Garmaise, a product planner for Microsoft Web Essentials.

Although ICW comes with a caller ID feature, ICW won't display names and numbers of callers who have caller ID blocking, a Microsoft spokesperson adds.

If you don't already use MSN as your Internet service provider, you'll need to join if you want the Nortel service. The service is free for the first month, then costs $21.95 monthly.

In 1999, slightly more than half of all households with Internet access have one phone line, and Internet call waiting is an inexpensive alternative to a second phone line, says Dana Thorat, Senior Research Analyst at International Data Corp.

"Nortel technology has a voice-over-IP, which sort of differentiates it from the other services that don't all have it," Thorat says.

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