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UK incumbent carrier British Telecom has signed two major initiatives with US companies this week; a deal with Yahoo! to offer a merged VoIP-Messenger service, and one with Microsoft to offer a merged voice and Live Meeting conferencing service.

Both services will be available overseas, although only the conferencing deal is truly international, with the VoIP service initially aimed at UK consumers.

The new VoIP service will operate free PC to PC, but will also link back into the telephone network and is offered in conjunction with Yahoo! and called BT Communicator with Yahoo! Messenger. The product will manage phone calls, webcam, emails, texts and instant messaging in one place on a PC, with multi way video calls expected to be added in 2005.

BT says that it is the first telco in the world, by which it clearly means major incumbent carrier, to offer this type of service on this scale. Anyone in the UK can use the service, with around 19 million phone consumers having a BT phone line.

Gavin Patterson, group MD, Consumer and Ventures, said: "We believe that BT Communicator with Yahoo! Messenger will fundamentally transform the way in which people. There is simply nothing to match this service in the marketplace at the current time.”

"The ways in which people frequently communicate is changing, with people rapidly switching from e-mail, text and instant messaging, to traditional voice calls.”

Fixed thinking

One of the things that BT is keen to put a stop to is the way Instant Messenger connections end up in phone calls being made, usually made via mobile phones (BT has no mobile service). BT wants to prevent any erosion of wire line services to mobile and this comes as part of a backlash against mobile phone use, which is often expensive, being orchestrated by BT.

Calls from PC to PC will be free using the service, but calls can also be made to other landlines or mobiles for the same cost as a phone call on a BT fixed line, potentially from anywhere in the world. UK customers can take their laptop abroad and then plug it into the internet. While online, BT's VoIP technology then allows an international call to be made back to any UK number for the price of a domestic UK call.

It is unclear yet if you can subscribe to the service without being a BT fixed line customer.

BT is also using the same technology to develop a multi-way video call feature to be added during 2005.

But at the same time BT is taking a shot at the enterprise conferencing market in a tie up with Microsoft in the US and Europe. The idea is to offer its own voice conferencing service alongside a hosted Live Meeting service so that Powerpoint and other presentations can be presented to up to several 1,000 recipients, at once, with full voice facilities.

This type of conferencing is already big business in the US with internal, dedicated systems and conference bureaux being used regularly, and Microsoft announced a similar deal with MCI about a month ago.

Mike Berry, head of strategic planning for BT Conferences, part of BT Retail, said: “For every video conference that we organize there are 1,000 voice conferences.

“This is a ‘pence per minute’ service so we require no upfront commitment on the number of conference minutes that an enterprise will use, although if a company does commit to an up front volume, we will offer a discounted per minute price." Pricing starts at 20 pence (36 cents) per user per minute.

Eating own dog food

BT has been a user internally of Placeware for years. This was then bought by Microsoft and renamed Live Meeting. The company will now merge the Live Meeting services with its own MeetMe phone conferencing service, built primarily around the Voyant phone conferencing equipment, a company now owned by video conferencing player Polycom.

BT plans to offer the service in its native UK and Europe and also in the US where it will meet more entrenched competition, including MCI.

During an internal pilot in BT, the company said the use of the combined audio and Web system saved the company more than 6.2 million miles of business travel.The service offers rapid account set up, real-time Web-based support, new multiple presenter capability, text-based Q&As and side chat discussions.

“We have integrated Outlook so that you have buttons for ‘Meet Now,’ and ‘Schedule meetings in advance,’ and it automatically puts the conference sign-on details into meeting schedules,” explained Berry.

“The system also works with Lotus Notes and authorized users can download the meeting set up buttons and go straight to setting up their own meetings.”

The Live Meeting part of the service is ultimately hosted by Microsoft for BT.

Copyright © 2004, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of events that have happened each week in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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