Internet call waiting turns one phone line into two
August 13, 1999
by Yardena Arar
(IDG) -- Brring! Click. Crash. That's the sound of an Internet connection dying when an incoming voice call activates call waiting. The caller will get through, all right -- but there goes your 10MB file download. Some modems ignore the call-waiting signal, and you can always turn the feature off. But then you're back to missing calls, which is why you got call waiting in the first place. Fortunately, better options are at hand.
On the hardware front, the newest arrival is Actiontec Electronics' 56K Call Waiting Modem. This V.90 unit rings when a call comes in and lets the user chat with the caller for several seconds before deciding whether to end the Internet session. (An internal PCI unit costs $100; the external serial model sells for $120.) In my tests, a preproduction internal model proved tricky to install but worked as advertised. Another new product, Computer Peripherals Systems' $189 Internet Caller ID/Call Waiting Manager, attaches to your computer and to your telephone line. It works much like Actiontec's modem, but if you have Caller ID service, it will also store the phone numbers of incoming calls.
Even better than these hardware devices are the new Internet call-waiting services, which let users screen calls and which cost about a third as much as a second phone line. (Customers must subscribe to call forwarding for busy signals.) The first of these services, Internet Call Manager, was developed by InfoInteractive of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is the only service available throughout the United States and Canada. InfoInteractive sells its product directly to all consumers except those living in areas where it's offered by InfoInteractive licensees, which at press time included GTE.net, Prodigy, and Cincinnati Bell.
When bought directly from InfoInteractive, Internet Call Manager costs $5 a month (plus call-forwarding charges) and requires downloading a 900KB app that runs in the background. If someone calls you while you're on the Net, a pop-up window displays the caller's name and phone number. By clicking on a button in the window, you can choose either to play a recorded message or to ignore the call, in which case the ring that the caller heard initially will turn into a busy signal.
Telephone companies and ISPs can further customize the service. For example, Cincinnati Bell's version lets a customer forward the call to another number. GTE's InfoInteractive-based service will soon be available to GTE.net and Prodigy subscribers in most major cities; and Bell Atlantic is conducting trials of a similar service.
Newer services use voice-over Internet Protocol -- the technology that enables Internet phone calls -- to let customers stay online and accept incoming calls. The first of these services, US West's Online Call Alert, is available now in limited areas; the company plans to expand the service to all areas where it also offers customers USWest.net Internet access. Online Call Alert forwards incoming voice calls to a special gateway where they're turned into Internet phone calls. Voice quality is not as good as it would be on a regular line, but the service (including call forwarding) costs just $10 per month.
Similar voice-over IP features are included in Lucent's Online Communications Center, which ISPs and telephone companies should begin offering by the end of the year. For anyone who wants a phone line to do double duty, these services may finally provide a no-fuss, affordable solution.
Voice over DSL sounds promising
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