SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Google Inc has introduced a new feature that will allow consumers to use its Google Voice service without switching to a special phone number, potentially broadening the appeal of the nascent, and controversial, service.
Google said late Monday that new users of its service will be able to have the calls that they don’t answer forwarded to a special Google Voice electronic mailbox, essentially bypassing the voicemail provided by their phone carriers.
Google Voice offers a variety of voicemail management features, including unlimited storage and text transcription of voicemail messages.
The service also allows consumers to make low-priced international calls by routing portions of the call over Google’s infrastructure and the Internet.
Until now, using Google Voice required adopting a special Google phone number. The new feature allows people to retain their existing phone numbers.
Craig Walker, a group product manager for real time communications at Google, said the company will provide users with a special code to enter into their phone which forwards unanswered calls to a Google-maintained voicemailbox.
Walker said the call-forwarding feature did not require striking special deals with the phone carriers.
“Virtually all the carriers already allow this,” said Walker.
He noted that cell phone operators generally approve of call-forwarding since the carriers charge airtime minutes even after a call has been forwarded to another phone number.
“It allows them to continue running the meter, they charge per minute while I’m on that diverted call,” said Walker.
Google Voice, which was launched in March, is available to a limited number of people who have received invitations from Google or from other Google Voice users.
Walker said the company hopes to make the service open to the general public relatively soon, though he would not specify when. He also declined to say how many people use Google Voice, but said the company has been pleased with the numbers.
The product has earned positive reviews in the technology press as well as some degree of controversy.
Google has said that Apple Inc rejected the Google Voice application for the iPhone, while Apple has maintained that it is still studying the software. The dispute has drawn the attention of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
And earlier this month, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives called on the FCC to investigate reports, cited by AT&T Inc, that Google Voice was blocking costly calls to phone numbers in certain rural areas in order to cut down on expenses.
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