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Tellme takes over toll-free look-up

The voice Web portal has taken over AT&T's directory service telephone number, bringing Internet and old-world telecom services one step closer together.

Voice Web portal Tellme Networks has taken over AT&T's toll-free directory service telephone number, bringing Internet and old-world telecommunications services one step closer together.

Callers looking for a toll-free number through 1-800-555-1212 are now directed to an Internet-based voice recognition service operated by Tellme, before ultimately being pushed to a human operator.

The deal, which neither company has officially announced, has been in the testing stages for several months, an AT&T spokesman said. A posting on a Communications Workers of America (CWA) union Web site last February noted the upcoming change, saying that no jobs would be lost.

A Tellme spokeswoman confirmed the relationship and said the service has been handling all of AT&T's toll-free directory assistance calls for about a week, but would not comment further.

While potentially a significant source of revenue for the Mountain View, Calif.-based company, the deal does represent one of the clearest marks of credibility yet for companies hoping to merge old-fashioned telecommunications services with Internet technologies.

Tellme and rival BeVocal each originally conceived their services as a number consumers could call to get Net-style information such as news, stock quotes and sports scores over the phone. Another rival, Quack.com, was bought by America Online and served as the core of that company's AOL by Phone service.

The two independent companies have morphed into something different, however, now serving as a supplement or replacement for large businesses' and telecommunications networks' call centers. Their voice recognition services replace complicated phone trees and voice mail systems with services that turn voice commands into queries that tap ordinary Web sites and databases.

Tellme has previously said it is working with AT&T Business Services and AT&T Wireless, but this is the largest tangible sign of the relationship.

Last month, Tellme founder Mike McCue stepped down as CEO in favor of newcomer John LaMacchia, a former Cincinnati Bell executive the company hopes will help solidify relationships in the telecommunications business.