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Metro looks to revive visual voicemail

Since Apple's big launch on the iPhone, visual voicemail has stagnated, but Metro sees a revenue opportunity in the enhanced mailbox service

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that MetroPCS would charge a $5 monthly fee for all visual voicemail. It actually will charge that fee only to Visual Voicemail Plus customers who use the trascription services.

When the iPhone first launched in 2007, it came with the first major facelift to voicemail in more than a decade, downloading and localizing voicemail on the phone and allowing customers to manage their messages just as they would SMS and MMS. Considering the last major innovation in voicemail was one-touch mailbox dialing, you would think other operators would have quickly followed with their own visual services.

But apart from a few device-specific implementations such as the Samsung Instinct and some enhancements to traditional network-based solutions, operators have done little to update their voicemail platforms despite the lightening fast pace of innovation on almost every other service. Many smartphone vendors have even integrated visual voicemail clients into their devices, yet most operators haven’t utilized them.

MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS), however, aims to reverse that trend. Today it announced not only a visual voicemail solution, but a cross-device and cross-platform voicemail solution. Rather than make it a special feature on a specific device, it plans to offer the service across all of its smartphones and feature phones, starting initially with its Android devices.

MetroPCS is using Silent Communication’s VVM platform, which integrates voicemail directly into the smartphone’s address book and messaging client. Customers can view and manage their voicemail as they would SMS and MMS, tapping a message to listen to the local-stored audio and responding to a message through any means available through the address book. Metro is also supporting an additional feature of the VVM unavailable on most other advanced voicemail platforms: speech-to-text transcriptions of messages, allowing customers to read rather listen to their voice messages.

The service will be available for free on the Samsung Galaxy Indulge, the LG Optimus M and the Huawei Ascend for customers with a $45 or greater CDMA 1X or long-term evolution (LTE) data plan, though speech-to-text transcription will cost an additional $5 a month. Metro said it plans to roll it out to its BlackBerry and BREW device portfolio in the future.

“Launching the Visual Voice Mail service on MetroPCS devices was a natural next step to provide additional value to our service plans and features that are already the best value in the wireless industry,” MetroPCS president and CEO Roger Linquist said in a statement.

Visual voicemail may provide additional value to Metro’s service, but it also comes with an associated cost. Carriers probably need to find some way of recovering the cost of deploying the platform as well as recover lost minutes as customers typically dip into their minute buckets to access their mailboxes. The latter doesn’t really pertain to Metro though since most of its plans offer unlimited voice, though it still incurs data costs from delivering the raw messages over its 2G and LTE data networks.

Voicemail has traditionally been a free service on postpaid and prepaid plans, so customers might balk at the idea of paying for the service. When Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD) launched its own visual voicemail service based on Comverse’s platform—which really only added new features to the network mailbox rather than made voicemail an IP service—it slapped on a price tag of $3 month (CP: Verizon launches visual voicemail). Little more was heard about the service afterwards. Meanwhile Apple and its carrier partners offer visual voicemail for ‘free’ though you could argue the cost is factored into their hefty data plan fees. Metro is likely looking to split the difference between those two models: using the free basic visual service to lure in customers and keep them loyal, while offering the transcription service as a revenue generator.

Unlike Comverse’s network-based platform, Silent uses an entirely client-based approach. An application sitting on the smartphone and feature phone communicates with an operator’s existing legacy voicemail system, eliminating any need to replace or upgrade the voicemail systems operators have been using for the past decade. In addition, Silent’s client can integrate features from other services that don’t necessarily reside in the voicemail server. In Metro’s case, the Silent client draws the raw voice message data from Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) and message transcription data from Metro’s voice-to-text provider Yap.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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