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Sprint PCS to test voice-portal services

In an attempt to supplement its Wireless Web mobile phone data service, the company is bringing voice back to the phone.

In an attempt to supplement its Wireless Web mobile phone data service, Sprint PCS is bringing voice back to the phone.

The carrier is announcing a deal with voice portal company BeVocal on Monday, in which it will test the smaller company's voice services in advance of a nationwide version of the feature early next year.

The service will allow selected Sprint subscribers to get Web-like information such as news, stock quotes, traffic information or driving directions.

It's not the first time a carrier has added this service to its list of features. Qwest Communications International added BeVocal's voice surfing to its stable just a few weeks ago. But it's the largest such deal and perhaps the best fulfillment of the most recent strategies for these surf-by-voice services.

Many of these companies, including leaders BeVocal and Tellme Networks, initially launched with a direct consumer focus. But most have evolved into a business-to-business approach, with wireless carriers as one of the most desired partners.

Sprint's interest is part of a growing swell of corporate interest in this type of service.

AT&T was one of the first big companies to display interest, making a $50 million investment in Tellme earlier this year. Ma Bell's wireless division hasn't yet picked up the service, but the giant's business division has plans to offer Tellme's hosting and voice-site development services to its own clients.

Portals America Online and Lycos each have added voice access to their Web sites. AOL bought start-up Quack.com, a BeVocal competitor, to create its service. Other telephone companies have expressed some interest but have yet to take the official plunge.

"We think this is going to attract a lot of interest," said BeVocal co-founder Amol Joshi. "Qwest was kind of a wake-up call for the (wireless) industry."

Sprint has worked hard to separate its wireless service from others, offering features such as an MP3 online music locker and a voice-dialing system. The company is struggling to maintain its strong momentum in the wake of several other large carriers' entry into the nationwide service market, including Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless.