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AOL, Net2Phone stake Web message service

The online giant and the Internet telephony provider are dipping their toes into the Internet-based unified messaging market.

America Online and ally Net2Phone are dipping their toes into the Internet-based unified messaging market.

The two companies each took a stake today in small Illinois-based Webley Systems, which offers services such as voice mail, "follow-me" calling that tracks down subscribers to cellular phones, and voice-activated Web browsing over phones.

While the size of the investment is relatively small--just $15 million between the two companies--the move underscores a growing willingness on the part of AOL to move into a communications sphere once dominated by traditional telephone companies.

Internet telephony provider Net2Phone has long been a potential competitor to telephone companies, offering cheap long-distance calls over the Net. Now the industry has finally reached deeply enough into the mainstream to attract the attention of AT&T, which invested $725 million in the company last week.

America Online has for some time been skirting the edges of the traditional telecommunications business. It has long offered a branded long-distance service run by and recently began adding voice features into its popular instant messaging services. The company has said it has no intention of "replacing the telephone," however.

But if it's not replacing the phone, AOL's various investments and side projects are doing a good job of co-opting it.

The Webley investment takes aim at some of the big local phone companies' most profitable services, such as voice mail, caller ID and second phone lines.

For the price of about $30 a month, Webley offers these services itself, along with extra features like its "follow-me" service. The company competes directly with the big local phone companies in some of its markets, and offers its services to the giants in others.

"We're completely embedded in the existing phone service," said Webley marketing vice president Hal Poel. "That's the way it has to happen for these services to work."

Chief among these developing relationships is an agreement with giant SBC Communications to provide services in Los Angeles beginning in May. Webley will provide its full range of services to the company's customers there but under the SBC brand name.

The investments will allow Net2Phone to license the Webley services for its own customers, the company said. AOL has not yet disclosed any plans for using the young company's features.