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Mobile

Voice portals drawing bigger customers

AT&T Wireless is joining up with voice portal service Tellme to offer voice-activated information surfing, marking the biggest telecommunications deal yet for the industry.

AT&T Wireless is joining up with voice portal service Tellme Networks to offer voice-activated information surfing, marking the biggest telecommunications deal yet for the young industry.

The deal, which comes in the same week as Qwest Wireless turns on a similar service from Tellme rival BeVocal, underlines wireless carriers' drive to offer Internet-style information beyond the still-buggy means of Web browsing on phones' small screens. The voice portal services offer an alternative to text browsing, letting callers navigate through Web-like information using voice commands.

Although a slew of new "Wireless Web" announcements is being made at this week's Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) trade show, concerns about the slow adoption rates of mobile phone Web browsing remain.

Most of the big carriers are moving toward so-called third-generation (3G) technologies that will help eliminate problems like slow surfing speeds and limited applications. But increasingly they are looking for technology to fill in the gap, even as they offer access to the limited Web browsing services now available for a phone.

"Providing a voice interface is an important component in the mix for offering access to information," AT&T Wireless Chief Technology Officer Rod Nelson said in a statement. "This voice-activated service is network agnostic, so customers can retrieve information now and as we move toward 3G."

Customers of AT&T Wireless and Qwest will be able to punch a "shortcut" access code on their phones to reach the voice-activated services, which will provide basic information such as stock quotes, traffic information, and news headlines.

AT&T's business services division is already an investor in Tellme, with a $60 million stake taken last year. This is the first time the relationship would flower into a service for AT&T consumer customers, however.

The largest non-carrier use of the voice portal technology has come from America Online, which is now advertising its "AOL by Phone" service nationally.