Start-up answers the call

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 start-up 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 month, Internet service provider Internet Direct announced a partnership with Halifax-based InfoInteractive to offer the service to its national subscribers for an additional $4.95 per month. Internet Direct plans to offer an initial 30-day free trial to customers when it launches the service in the third quarter.

Internet Call Manager (ICM) is available currently from InfoInteractive’s Canadian telecom partners, which include BCT.Telus, MTT and Island Tel. The service can also be ordered directly from InfoInteractive, via the company’s Web site at

In addition, InfoInteractive has a partnership with U.S.-based GTE Corp. to offer the service to North American subscribers via the GTE Internet service. Last month, GTE and Prodigy expanded the program to offer the ICM service to any Internet user — regardless of his or her service provider — and added new Caller ID functions.

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.

According to Internet Direct, the users have four options: answer the call by disconnecting from the Internet session; respond to the caller with a customized, prerecorded voice message that says they will call back; forward the call to another number such as a cell phone; or ignore the call in complete privacy.

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 the ISP’s network and activates the ICM features, at no additional cost to the caller. It is an additional expense for the subscriber, however.

What’s more, ICM does not work with existing voice-message programs offered by phone companies. That means that if you’re on-line and do not want to take the incoming call, ICM offers only the prerecorded message option. 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,” said 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

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

“We’re working to automate (the process of ordering busy call forwarding) as quickly as possible,” said 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 centre.

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

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 per cent of single-line on-line U.S. households surveyed said they were interested in subscribing to an Internet call-waiting service. The study also predicted that in 2003, 80 per cent 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 said that GTE plans to partner with other ISPs and Web portals to provide various versions of the ICM service.

“You’re likely to see different ISPs using this to add value, to differentiate themselves a little bit,” said IDC’s Thorak.