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BeVocal draws BellSouth as customer

The voice recognition company will provide its services inside BellSouth's phone network, the first such deal for one of the big local-telephone companies.

BellSouth has signed BeVocal to provide voice recognition services inside its phone network, the first time one of the big local-telephone companies has joined forces with a voice portal.

While neither company is yet saying exactly how the voice recognition services will be used, it is a strong step forward for BeVocal, and for the market it is in. BeVocal, Tellme Networks and a few others provide technology that can turn voice commands into Internet requests, allowing telephone companies or businesses to link their phone systems to Net databases or information on ordinary Web sites.

Many of the companies in the voice portal business launched initially as a telephone version of a Web portal, where callers could get news, sports, traffic reports, horoscopes and other information over the phone. But the ambitious end goal for these companies has always been to strike deals with telephone companies, so these services could be as ubiquitous and as easy to reach as a dial tone.

Like other previous deals--AT&T is working with Tellme, and Qwest Wireless is working with BeVocal--the BellSouth arrangement falls well short of that mark. But it does bring the industry one step closer.

"BellSouth shares our vision of 'voicetone'--the ability to pick up a phone, say the name of the person, business or information service you want to reach and be instantly connected," David Hood, BeVocal's chief executive officer, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with BellSouth to make this vision a reality."

Financial details of the deal were not immediately available. BeVocal vice president of marketing Amol Joshi characterized it as a "much deeper partnership than just licensing technology," however.

BeVocal and Tellme are the two leading companies in the voice portal space that have survived shakeout and consolidation among a dozen or so companies that entered the business two years ago.

BeVocal has concentrated on telephone companies, signing up Qwest Wireless and now BellSouth. Tellme has branched out more to big businesses, offering voice-recognition services that replace the voice mail trees inside call centers of airlines, banks and other institutions. But that company's only large announced customer remains AT&T and AT&T Wireless.