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AOL debuts voice conferencing for consumers

New service lets people use AIM or recorded voice to invite up to 15 others to join in on group calls.

America Online on Thursday launched a consumer version of its voice conferencing service.

The AIM Voice Conferencing service incorporates AIM Instant Messenger's "presence" technology, which allows people to see if friends and family are online and available to chat. They can then invite up to 15 people to join a group call. Calls are placed over regular telephone lines using AIM's Buddy List feature, the company said.

The service is powered by Lightbridge's dial-out conferencing technology, which lets toll-free calls be placed directly to participants on either landlines or mobile phones.

After an initial promotion period, the service will cost 15 cents per minute, per user. The minutes have to be purchased in advance in increments of $20, $50 or $100, AOL said. Those receiving the calls on mobile devices may incur charges from their phone service provider.

AOL said invitations to join the conference can be sent through instant messaging to a personal computer, mobile phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) or via recorded voice to any phone, even to those who don't use AIM.

The company earlier this year targeted corporate consumers with a similar technology that allowed people to download add-ons to AIM such as Web conferencing tools from WebEx and online teleconferencing tools through Lightbridge.

"Consumer AIM Voice Conferencing is a natural extension of the at-work conferencing service we launched together with AOL in June of this year," Kevin Thornton, general manager at Lightbridge, said in a statement.

Instant messaging has been a popular application among business users as well as home consumers. Internet services from AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft and others have sought to take advantage of this popularity by offering paid services for corporate users.