At Home Corp. last week took the first step in what
promises to become a market-driven stampede of cable interests in pursuit of
telecommunications opportunities over high-speed-data channels.
At Home and .comfax Inc., a leading supplier of
Internet-fax services, have agreed to provide online faxing to @Home Network
cable-modem-service subscribers for 10 cents per minute anywhere in the United States.
The capability eliminates the need for extra phone lines
for fax machines, allowing users to deliver and receive faxes through personal computers
equipped with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system and .comfax's client
Cable delivery of regular phone service via IP (Internet
protocol) technology is at least a year away. But the rising use of voice and fax
applications over Internet connections is driving cable-data-service providers to keep up
with the trend in a largely unscripted plunge into new types of telecommunications
" is going to be the introductory year for voice
on the Web," said Charles Moldow, vice president, @Media sales and marketing for
@Home. "The question for us is how involved we'll get to encourage behavior that
customers will be pursuing on their own."
If customers on dial-up links can gain access to such
applications by merely downloading software, the cable industry will likely have to strike
deals with specialized applications providers to ensure that its data-service customers
have the same services. The emergence of faxing as an @Home service is a case in point.
"This is a highly requested feature," Moldow
said. "We're telling people that they can now drop their second phone lines,
since they don't need second lines for online communications when they subscribe to
The arrangement with .comfax -- a New York-based provider
of global services over a special Internet-fax backbone -- required only some minor
"tweaking" of software to smoothly connect @Home's network with the .comfax
servers, Moldow said.
"Internet faxing is a pretty well-defined application
at this point," he added.
The same will soon be said of other IP-telecommunications
applications that are now becoming ingrained in a wide range of activities on the Web.
These include chat sessions, e-commerce and game playing, as well as PC-to-PC and
PC-to-phone calling, which have been around for a while.
At Home is looking at a number of proactive moves that
would couple these developments with the benefits of high-speed functionality, including
improved voice quality and less delay, Moldow said.
"I think that you'll see us becoming more active
in this space with Excite [Inc.], and then porting those applications into the @Home
space," he added.
Excite, the Internet portal recently acquired by @Home, is
already using the "Pow Wow" client software supplied by Tribal Voice, a leading
provider of chat services on the Internet.
This software, with voice codecs (encoding/decoding
software) built in, is also being used by AT&T Corp.'s "WorldNet"
service for a voice chat service dubbed "I Am Here."
In the voice-chat mode supported by Pow Wow, two
participants in a text-chat session signal to each other that they want to set up a
one-to-one session, which they can do while remaining in the larger session, with text
from both sessions displayed simultaneously on the computer screen.
Once in one-on-one mode, the users can click onto a
telephone icon on their screens and conduct their discussion verbally, assuming that each
has a microphone attached to their PC.
With voice codecs delivering ever more quality and access
speeds increasing via faster dial-up and other links, the voice-chat capability of Pow Wow
has become the biggest market draw for Tribal Voice, said Richard Dym, vice president of
marketing for the four-year-old Silicon Valley firm.
Voice communications are used about 20 percent of the time
by the more than 4 million registered users of the software, he noted.
With broadband connectivity and better quality, that usage
is sure to rise, Dym added. Moreover, he said, broadband opens the possibility of adding
videoconferencing with the voice capability, which is "the next step" in what
Tribal Voice calls the "levels of intimacy" that are associated with chat.
"We're very interested in getting into the
broadband world," Dym said.
So, too, is IDT Corp., which, like Tribal Voice, is
knocking on @Home's and other high-speed-service providers' doors with ideas
about how to add voice to the broadband online experience.
Last week, IDT chief operating officer David Greenblatt
paid a visit to @Home, pitching the company's arsenal of voice-support capabilities,
including a soon-to-be-announced voice-over-chat service that supports PC-to-phone
connections while maintaining the privacy of the called party.
IDT is the provider of the well-known "Net2Phone"
service, which allows people to call from PCs to any phone anywhere in the world via IDT
gateway interfaces with public switched telephone networks.
The chat-based component of this service allows a party
equipped with the Net2Phone software to ask someone in a chat session if they would like
to talk without having to know that party's phone number.
"This is a very valuable capability in girl/boy chat
scenarios," Greenblatt said. "Our system registers whatever name or label the
called party wants to use, so that when the caller uses that name, the phone number is
dialed without the caller knowing what the number is."
Netscape Communications Corp., which is now a unit of
America Online Inc., recently completed a deal with IDT that licenses the Net2Phone
software for inclusion in version 5.0 of Netscape's Communicator browser. AOL has
also acquired ICG, the leading provider of chat services and Tribal Voice's main
An AOL spokeswoman declined to discuss details of
AOL's voice-applications plans, but with these and other alliances in play, it was
clear that the service provider is gearing up for a new generation of voice-enabled
Soon, these various players will be able to offer
multiparty voice-communications capability using software developed by Intel Corp.
Mpath Interactive Inc., a pioneer in multiplayer
online-game services -- and, according to informed sources, a user of the new Intel
software -- recently created a new service, "Hearme.com," to accommodate surging
interest in voice chat, which has proved as popular as game playing.