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AOL gives voice to e-mail upgrade

America Online adds a slew of telephone-based services to its upgraded AOLbyPhone package, in an attempt by the Internet service provider to find new means of revenue.

America Online on Wednesday launched its upgraded AOLbyPhone package, which includes a slew of new telephone-based services for subscribers.

The AOLbyPhone service, which will cost existing AOL users an additional $3.95 per month, offers customers the ability to check e-mail and access other features using voice commands, toll-free, from any phone. Among the tools added in the rerelease of the service are directory assistance, access to news, wake-up calls and the ability to hear and record audio files for specific AOL Web pages.

AOL cited the proliferation of mobile devices and growth of the text-messaging market as primary incentives in expanding its voice-based service. An earlier effort to launch a wireless device featuring AOL software was cancelled earlier this year.

"More and more, people feel the need to be connected to their e-mail wherever they are," Ted Leonsis, president of AOL Core Service, said in a statement. "AOLbyPhone makes checking e-mail as easy as picking up the phone, and provides our members easy access to a wealth of other must-have information from their AOL accounts," he said.

AOL has labored to find new ways to increase revenue as online ad sales have sagged. The company previously offered only phone access to e-mail for the same price of the expanded AOLbyPhone package, as well as an incoming call alert system for $3.95 per month, and voice mail for $5.95 per month. All of the telephone-oriented service fees are tacked on to AOL's $23.90 monthly subscription fee.

The company reported that the service gives customers access to any AOL e-mail address over the phone, with the option to respond in 60-second audio messages or by keying in text using a phone's touchtone keypad. AOLbyPhone users will also be able to listen to audio replies sent from other subscribers paying for the service.

AOL indicated that it would soon follow up with another upgrade to its voice services, to which the company plans to add the ability to send e-mail and switch AOL screen names in the middle of a session, as well as enable subscribers to access their online address books.

Beyond the ability to access e-mail, the AOLbyPhone package adds some attractive new features at a relatively low price, including unlimited directory assistance, wake-up call, news and audio-file capabilities.

The wake-up feature will place a call to any phone number in the United States at the date and time chosen, and play back a recorded voice message. By giving simple voice commands such as "headline news" or "sports," subscribers can hear the latest news from an assortment of AOL's content partners. The system also allows contributors to AOL's Journals section to add audio entries to their online blogs.