Internet Call-Waiting Service Ramps Up

It's an irritant specific to Internet technology circa 1999: Dial-up users with only one phone line are forced to miss incoming calls while surfing the Web.

A new technology developed by Canadian startup InfoInteractive promises to alleviate the problem -- to a degree. Internet Call Manager provides dial-up users with on-screen notification of incoming telephone calls, and gives them the option of disconnecting from the Internet to take the call.

Earlier this year, GTE Corp. announced a partnership with InfoInteractive to offer the service to North American subscribers via its GTE Internet service for an additional US$4.95 per month. This week, GTE and Prodigy expanded the program to offer Call Manager service to any Internet user -- regardless of their service provider -- and added new Caller ID functions.

Though you don't have to change your Internet service provider to sign up for the service, new users will receive their first month free when they enroll via Prodigy. Internet Call Manager (ICM) is available now in 50 U.S. major metropolitan areas, covering 85 percent of the U.S. online population, and will expand to additional markets throughout 1999.

How It Works

With ICM installed and running, a small pop-up window appears on-screen whenever an incoming call is detected. Incoming calls are identified using Caller ID technology, which provides the phone number and name of the person calling, unless the caller is using ID blocking. The user has three options: You can answer the call by disconnecting from the Internet session; respond to the caller with a customized, prerecorded voice message that says you will call back; or respond to the caller with a prerecorded voice message that asks the caller to try again later.

There are a few hitches. To enable ICM, users must order busy call forwarding from their local phone provider. This reroutes the incoming calls to GTE's network and activates the ICM features, at no additional cost to the caller. It is an additional expense for the subscriber, however. Pacific Bell, for example, charges $3.50 a month for busy call forwarding.

What's more, ICM does not work with existing voice-message programs offered by phone companies. That means that if you're online and do not want to take the incoming call, ICM offers only the prerecorded message options. Callers do not have the option of leaving a message via your voice-messaging service.

"The initial release doesn't work with voice messaging, and it's clear they need to fix that," says International Data Corp. (IDC) research analyst Dana Thorak. "You also have to set up busy call forwarding for it to work. It's not that expensive, but you still have to go through the whole process of calling the phone company."

A Developing Technology

GTE concedes that the call-forwarding and voice-messaging issues need to be dealt with, and the company is working on ways to automate the process.

"We're working to automate (the process of ordering busy call forwarding) as quickly as possible," says Valerie Herzfeld, GTE's ICM product manager. "We try to provide as much information as possible during registration -- so far as how much it costs and where to call in your area. We also provide assistance through our customer care center.

"In our next release, due in early October, we will have the ability to interoperate with certain types of voice mail," Herzfeld adds.

To keep things simple, Herzfeld advises new users to deactivate their current voice-messaging service and use an answering machine instead.

Supply and Demand

IDC's Thorak says there is, and will continue to be, a big demand for Internet call-waiting service. In a recent IDC study, more than 44 percent of single-line online households surveyed said they were interested in subscribing to an Internet call-waiting service. The study also predicted that in 2003, 80 percent of U.S. home users will still be using dial-up connections, despite new broadband options such as cable modems and Digital Subscriber Line service.

Herzfeld says that GTE plans to partner with other ISPs and Web portals to provide various versions of the ICM service. You can also order the service directly from InfoInteractive, via the company's Web site.

"You're likely to see different ISPs using this to add value, to differentiate themselves a little bit," says IDC's Thorak.

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