Agencies find ways for citizens to dial in to Web sites by phone

If a government Web site could talk to you over the phone, what would it say?

With an unusual combination of telephone and Internet technologies, it’s possible
to surf the Web by telephone. No, not by modem—by phone touchpad or by voice
recognition in some cases.

It sounds like a primitive way to tackle something complicated—playing Mozart on a
child’s xylophone, perhaps. But a few government sites have found that there are
indeed folks who want to get information over their phones, and they don’t mind
listening while it is read to them by an electronic voice.

An agency can set up such a telephone system for less than $20,000.

Apart from citizens who don’t have PCs, who is doing the listening? In one case,
mariners at sea are calling in on their cellular phones and listening as portions of
National Weather Service pages are read back to them. The pages contain data about weather
buoys and marine forecasts.

In another reported case, Vermont has set up a number that lets blind citizens dial in
and surf certain Web pages by Touch-Tone keypad.

David Gilhousen, a meteorologist at the weather service’s National Data Buoy
Center at Stennis Space Center, Miss., helped set up the Dial-a-buoy system as an
extension of the observation data pages at

The Web site receives about 1 million hits monthly, he said. After three months, the
telephone portion is getting 700 calls per day. You can try it yourself by phoning

Dial-a-buoy is based on the Web On Call product from General Magic Inc. of Sunnyvale,
Calif. Gilhousen said a General Magic representative told him the phone system was
intended to help traveling salespeople gather information from their intranets.

The product has found a larger niche market for users with special needs, as well as
for people who don’t happen to be near a computer, or who need specific information
quickly without the hassle of booting up, dialing in and surfing. Any user might find
occasion to check news sites briefly by phone, for example.

When a site is set up for phone browsing, its Hypertext Markup Language must have
embedded tags that trigger special actions.

The server looks for the tags and causes a digitized voice to read prescribed sections.
The server could also look for hyperlink choices. Actions are triggered by Perl scripts
running under Microsoft Windows NT. The server must know it should ignore data such as
graphics and some text sections.

General Magic’s proprietary approach does not require use of Extensible Markup
Language or Handheld Device Markup Language. Whenever tags are encountered, the
specialized scripts take over.

We can expect to see other phone-type solutions as XML becomes more popular, because
XML tags can be set to read certain text portions on a Web page. But the callers must have
a text-to-speech module on their own computers.

Telephone surfing isn’t going to explode into the Internet’s next killer app.
It is, however, an interesting sideshow with relevance for government sites that must
communicate with many different audiences.

Other voice systems are appearing, too. For details about VoiceShare, a service that
lets you call from any phone and place a message on a Web site or send it to an e-mail
address, visit

Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Business Information Inc. E-mail him at [email protected].


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