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As traditional telcos grapple with their transition to the digital age, the search giant is set to announce its new Google Voice today. Voice will offer free domestic VoIP calls, a single number that rings on any phone you own, and transcribes voice mail - which will be placed, alongside email, in a single inbox, accessible from anywhere.
Voice is sure to reignite controversy over so-called "net neutrality" - or whether telcos who think Google is freeloading on their broadband networks can prioritise different services (say, their own services), or charge extra for certain types of data (say, VoIP operators' packets, or video). Crucially, President Obama has chosen a net-neutrality advocate - that is, more or less pro-VoIP, anti-traditional telco - as his Federal Communications Commissioner.
Free in-country calls, cheap tolls
On Google Voice all domestic voice calls (via VoIP) will be free. International toll calls will be charged, at a rate yet to be disclosed, via Google Checkout credit card transactions (a PC Magazine report claims the rate will be similar to Skype Out, which charges 4 Euro cents per toll call).
Calls from multiple landlines or mobiles can be stored in a single, universal inbox which sits on a Google server (see demo video below). Voice mail will be transcribed, and sit next to email and SMS. Other Google Voice frills will include a videoconferencing service that hosts up to six callers.
Got reviewers' tongues
Once auto-converted to text, a voice mail can be forwarded to you by SMS or email. The Associated Press, which has been previewing Google Voice for a week, says the transcription happened in seconds (the author does not mention how accurate the text translation was; sound files are attached to emails to clear any confusion).
At The New York Times, the usually cynical and reserved David Pogue raves about Google Voice, saying "This will be huge".
Pogue praises features - not new, but usually only available in expensive unified communications set-ups - such as the universal phone number, the ability to record a different busy-message for different callers, and the ability to transfer a call to a different phone mid-conversation (it's hard to imagine many circumstances that would require such telephonic acrobatics but, regardless, Pogue is jazzed).
He finds few reasons to nitpick though one - not all area codes being available to Google Voice - hits at political hassles to come around the US, and around the world.
The new service will be centred around a unified communications company called Grand Central, which Google bought in 2007 for $50 million.
Hunkering down, US-based Grand Central has been accepting new customers by invitation only since it was acquired by Google, and the new service will be initially only available, on a trial basis, to Grand Central customers only, who number around 100,000.
Over the next few weeks, according to reports leaking onto Forbes and elsewhere, the trial will be extended to Google users in general.
It is still not clear how Google plans to monetise the service beyond the low-cost tolls - unlike most Google services, there will be no ads - or which countries outside the US will be able to access Voice.