AT&T gets verbal with the wireless Web

AT&T Wireless jumps on the "voice portal" train. Now, its 15 million customers can surf the mobile Web using spoken commands only.

AT&T Wireless on Tuesday joined a growing number of American telephone service providers using "voice portals", which let people surf the mobile Web using only verbal commands.

To use the service, AT&T Wireless' 15 million wireless customers can press the pound (#) key and dial the numbers 1-2-1 from any phone using the company's telephone service. A computer-generated voice is then at the person's command and can be told to read news or stock quotes. The service is free.

Voice portals like the one AT&T Wireless has created are meant to replace the arduous task of typing data on a cell phone's small keypad. They also offer a safer way to drive and dial phone numbers at the same time. Phone companies are trying to come up with ways to appease lawmakers who are busying themselves with legislation that could ban the use of a cell phone while driving.

Carriers also hope to reduce the number of dissatisfied customers who migrate from one service provider to the next, analysts said.

"When you provide a service like this," said AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi, "it makes your relationship with customers more sticky." In other words, customers are more likely to stick with companies that offer services they like.

The voice portal is catching on. By year's end, some suggest, every major American wireless carrier will have this particular type of service. Sprint PCS and Qwest Communications International already have a voice portal running on their systems. Nextel Communications also has expressed an interest in developing such a service, according to industry sources.

But AT&T is the only one that offers the service free. While not being forced to pay a US$4.95 monthly fee, as other carriers are charging, AT&T Wireless users will have to listen to advertisements read to them when they first log on to the system.

AT&T Wireless is using software from Tellme Networks, which AT&T holds a US$60 million stake in. AT&T agreed in March to use Tellme's services. For Tellme, the pact with AT&T is part of its plan to target businesses and communications carriers rather than consumers.

AT&T Wireless does have a separate data service that 600,000 customers subscribed to and pay an extra fee for. The #-1-2-1 service gives the uninitiated cell phone user a taste of the mobile Web as well. But unlike the pay service, through which people can navigate the mobile Web at will, users of the #-1-2-1 service cannot access anything beyond a closed set of content offerings, Blasi said.