Beep If Your Pager Sends Voice Mail

The trusty pager is about to get a makeover. This fall, the nation's major paging companies will begin rolling out a new generation of belt-buckling units that not only receive but also send messages. Some pagers will become mini-answering machines, capable of relaying voice messages, rather than just phone numbers and a few lines of text.

These sophisticated services are possible because the federal government began auctioning off new space on the airwaves a year ago. More than a dozen paging companies bid $600 million for access to that space and are now expanding services to utilize the frequencies.

CELLULAR DELAY. First out will be PageNet's VoiceNow service, developed with Motorola. This fall the company will test a new pager in New York, San Francisco, and Dallas that can receive voice messages, with a national rollout set for the first half of 1996. The price is a modest $20 a month for local service, including the lease of the pager.

Callers trying to reach you simply dial an 800 number and leave a voice message, which is then transmitted to the unit. The pager can store and play back up to four minutes of messages. But you can opt to have the network store additional messages for an as-yet-undetermined fee. When you clear out your old messages, the network will forward the new ones to you automatically.

BellSouth Mobilecomm is taking the concept a bit further. This fall it will launch ReadyTalk, developed by ReadyCom in Chapel Hill, N.C. While the ReadyTalk unit is clunkier than the VoiceNow pager, it lets you receive a voice message and send one back to the person trying to reach you. Just talk into the pager to record a message, which is then forwarded to the number of the person who called.

BellSouth expects its service to cost less than $30 a month, not including the pager, which will run $250, or another $7 a month. Initially, it will offer the service in the Southeast, where it provides cellular access. But ReadyCom is also licensing the technology to other cellular providers such as Comcast, which is expected to make ReadyTalk available in the Philadelphia and New Jersey regions in November.

Keep in mind that ReadyTalk makes use of open space on existing cellular frequencies. Hence, there could be problems transmitting voice messages inside buildings. Plus, when the frequencies are crowded with phone users, ReadyTalk messages take a backseat. So while most paging messages take a minute or so to transmit, a ReadyTalk message might take five minutes or more. The unit stores up to 15 minutes of messages.

Of course, not everyone needs voice messaging; sometimes a simple text note will do just fine. But now you'll be able to respond with a text message of your own. Virtually all the big paging companies--including PageNet, BellSouth, SkyTel, PageMart, and AT&T--will be offering some form of two-way text paging early next year.

If the person paging you has a pager, he or she will get a beep confirming you received the message. In addition, you can send back one of several brief, preprogrammed messages to the person's pager or E-mail address. If the caller has neither, the message could be transmitted to a central voice mailbox and then forwarded to a home or office phone number, where a computerized voice could read the message out loud. Such services leave you fewer and fewer excuses to be out of touch.

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