Triumph Of The Power Phone

Fancy features can help you create an office switchboard right at home

Call it a blessing. Call it a curse. But we have come to depend on high-powered phone systems with voice mail and all the trimmings. Whether our child needs a ride home from dance class or a client is ready to close a deal, we want to get our calls. The power phone is particularly critical for the growing legions of people who work from home and handle some 100 calls a day with no secretary.

These days your phone company is fast becoming your secretary. Such services as call waiting, voice mail, call forwarding, and three-way calling have been available in every state for a few years now, for about $5 to $10 each per month. But these bells and whistles fell short of turning a home phone into a facsimile of the multifeatured office switchboard because they couldn't be combined. That's changing now.

BROADCAST TIME. Suppose, for example, you want to check each incoming call to decide whether to answer it or send it to voice mail. You can start by investing in a phone outfitted with a liquid-crystal display, at a cost of $50 to $250. It will let you tap into the array of services that local phone companies are programming into their central switching offices. Besides allowing residential customers to make conference calls or selectively answer calls, the systems will let you send voice messages to many people at the same time. And your long-distance carrier is just as eager to offer fancy features--the most common is a personal phone number that will automatically ring you at whatever number you want it to.

Nynex' Call Manager is typical of the kinds of products available across the country. The service, which costs $19 a month in New York State, displays the phone number and name of an incoming call on a screen phone and allows you to deal with it in four different ways: You can forward the call to your voice mailbox, "conference" it in with the call you're already on, place the first call on hold and answer the second, or route it to one of two voice prompts--"Hold On" or "Call Back." Also, most regions allow the customer to program up to five different personal mailboxes so that a caller can choose to leave a message for you, your co-worker--or one of your three teenagers.

Then, there's voice-mail broadcasting. Bell Atlantic just rolled out a service in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., called T-Mail, which allows customers to use their voice mail to send the same message to another individual or to an entire group, all with one phone call. People can send, reply to, and copy messages to anyone within their regional calling area who also has a Bell Atlantic voice mailbox. Small businesses in particular can benefit. For example, the local hardware store could use T-Mail to alert its customers instantly to sales events. With prices starting at 15 cents per call, the cost can be less than the postage alone for flyers.

Most of the nation's local phone companies are planning, or have already started, to roll out a similar service. But you can only send a message to a voice mailbox in your immediate area because few central-office-based systems are compatible with each other. Phone companies, however, want to correct that drawback, and recently Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, Nynex, and Pacific Telesis banded together to develop mailbox-to-mailbox standards so customers won't have to know or care who uses which carrier's service.

For other fancy calling features, turn to your long-distance provider. They're the ones offering follow-you-anywhere phone numbers. Local carriers are not yet allowed to sell long-distance service.

KEEPING TABS. All the major carriers offer a service similar to AT&T True Connections, which assigns subscribers a 500 number that they can give to their clients and colleagues. When you leave home for a trip, you can program the 500 number to ring at a particular location. If you don't know where you're going, you can have calls ring automatically at up to three numbers--your home, cell phone, and pager, say, until you pick up. AT&T has been offering a series of promotions on True Connections: Right now, you can get the service for six months with no installation or monthly fee. Usually, it costs $2.95 to $4.95 a month, plus usage charges.

Down the road, phone companies are hoping to come up with a way to combine voice mail and E-mail delivery. "I would say it's a very high priority for everyone in the industry to develop a PC-compatible service," says Tim Munoz, managing director of Nynex' consumer markets. He thinks there will be integrated voice mail/E-mail sometime in the second half of next year. With that kind of service, you may never have to talk to anyone in person again.