Bell Canada has joined the ranks of United States companies offering voice portals that allow users to check news, weather and hear e-mails read to them on mobile phones.

VoiceNet, which Bell developed through BCE‘s $70 million Convergence Fund, will be offered for $5 per month plus airtime charges. Users will dial #8888 (1-866 for Western Canada subscribers) to listen to menu options and responding with voice commands to use applications.

Firms like Tellme Networks, HeyAnita, BeVocal and VoiceGenie either offer voice portal services or sell the software that allows service providers and businesses to offer voice portal services.

Voice portals are growing rapidly in the U.S., where AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS, Japan Telecom and Qwest Communications International allow cell phone owners to use voice commands to browse the Web.

Nick Patsiopoulos, Bell Mobility’s senior marketing manager, said the Computer Telephony Solutions group within Bell had already developed the basic architecture for voice-enabled applications. This allowed Bell to manage the interface between Bell’s wireless switches and server environment to implement the voice recognition technology. The company also turned to Nuance Technology to fine-tune the recognition software so that it will understand various pronunciations, and SpeechWorks for its text-to-speech engine.

“”The market is fairly well-established in the United States, but no one had really done anything like this north of the border,”” he said. “”It’s something that essentially continues to extend wireless data access.””

That’s because the use of voice allows the service to be offered over both analogue and digital networks in all coverage areas of Bell’s territory, Patsiopoulos said. “”It’s also about ease of use. Speech is very natural — it’s a little less cumbersome than entering via keypad, for example. It really complements what we already have out there.””

Speech recognition applications often require considerable time for users to “”train”” the software to pick up on their voice patterns, but Patsiopoulos said VoiceNet is speaker-independent. It uses commands rather than natural speech patterns. Users would say, “”My News,”” “”My Weather”” or “”What are my choices?””

“”In terms of misrecognizing (words), it depends on the application,”” he said. “”For basic applications like the main menu, the news categories, the e-mail commands, the recognition is well north of 90 per cent accuracy.””

Accuracy could fall once users go deeper within applications like My Weather, for example, where the names of various cities may sound alike. Though it has noise reduction features, the background static that frequently makes cell phone conversations difficult could affect the VoiceNet’s service. “”The voice portal’s not magic,”” he said.

Mark Plakias, vice-president of the voice and wireless services practice at the Kelsey Group, said there is little hard evidence on the success of voice portals in the U.S.

“”It’s hard to gauge because nobody’s really promoting them,”” he said. “”It does appear that there is loyalty among users. People who sample the service and adopt it do keep calling. TellMe gets something like a ridiculous number of calls a month.””

Bell Mobility, will offer the wireless service to all of its subscribers. Sympatico-Lycos, will contribute content development and aggregation expertise.

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