Joe Brancatelli spends a third of his life on the road, reporting for his column on the biztravel.com site. So how do you reach him when he's away from his Cold Spring (N.Y.) home? Just dial a number he has set up with JFAX.COM, a Web-based telecom service, and send a fax or leave a voice mail. They're converted to an e-mail file that he views on his laptop. Says Brancatelli: "This is no fuss, no muss."
Getting faxes and voice messages as e-mail are only two of the latest high-tech services for keeping in touch as you globe-trot. You can have voice mail converted to text, get a phone number that follows you wherever you go, or even respond to voice or e-mail messages by talking to a device that recognizes your speech and dials people in your address book automatically. International Data Corp., a Framingham (Mass.) market research firm, estimates 750,000 people use such services--and says the number may top 25 million by 2003.
FREE SERVICES. Sorting out the options is challenging. A quick Web search yielded more than a dozen offerings, ranging from free packages offered by JFAX to pricier ones that rely on voice-recognition technology. But you can try out many services gratis (table). EFax.com, for example, gives you a phone number in one of 14 states--the selection process is random--to get faxes free via e-mail. Mark Albert, a writer from Devon, Pa., says the service has saved him "the cost of buying my own fax machine and installing a separate telephone line." Jan Weiss, a vice-president at Structured Trade Finance in Chicago, used a free service from Onebox.com to stay in touch when she went to Argentina. "I especially love that you can pick up voice mail through the computer." Callers dialed her Onebox phone number in San Francisco.
For a fee, you can add services. For example, eFax also lets you send faxes while on the road. But you'll need to install eFax Send software and pay $2.95 a month plus a $10 set-up charge. Transmission within the U.S. costs 5 cents per 30 seconds. At JFAX, $12.50 a month buys you such services as fax reception through a personal digital assistant like the Palm Pilot VII.
If you prefer messages by phone instead of PC, consider the service from Wildfire Communications in Lexington, Mass., for both fixed-line and wireless phones. New York lobbyist Donald Ross depends on the service, which uses speech-recognition technology, to keep up with messages from around the world. If his wife called while he was on the phone, he says, "I would hear a whisper in my ear saying she was calling. You wouldn't hear anything. I could decide whether to take the call and come back to you, send it to voice mail, or make it into a conference call." To retrieve voice mail, he just calls in to Wildfire. The system recognizes his speech patterns and replays the messages. The service, which Ross buys from MessageBank in New York, costs him about $200 a month.
A "follow-me" option is 888mynumber.com, which relays calls to phone numbers in your home, work, and one other location. The cost of your phone time starts at $9.99 per month and 15 cents per minute for 500 minutes. It also assigns you a toll-free number to receive faxes and voice mail messages. The faxes are forwarded to a fax machine that you have designated or, for an additional fee, to a service called Webview, which lets you read your messages on a PC. Voice mail can also be heard via Webview.
Where to start? For an infrequent traveler or home-office worker, a free fax or voice-to-e-mail service is a money-saver as well as a convenience. Some questions to ask: Will you need special software or a different browser to use a particular service? Some, for instance, won't work with earlier versions of Netscape or Internet Explorer 4.0. Whatever you choose, it's easier than ever to stay in touch.