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Video e-mail savior for dot-com startup

February 9, 2002

Cincinnati Bell might become the nation's first local phone company to offer video e-mail service, thanks to a partnership with Main Street startup ConnectMail Ltd.

Walter Solomon, ConnectMail's founder and CEO, brought to life the software that makes it possible. Working on a shoestring budget, alone since the dot-com crash forced him to lay off his three employees, he has been waiting for days like these.

There were times when Solomon didn't think his company would make it. Now, if the last phase of technical trials with Bell are successful, it has a good chance.

"I'm elated. This is a huge, huge opportunity,'' Solomon said. "Everybody just wants the chance to see their creation in the market. But with the capital hurdles that have been around, with the tech hurdles, with the recession, getting anyone to try something new has been a huge problem.''

His software, dubbed ZoomTown Video Email Messaging by Bell, is being tested by a small group of people who have helped with its development. In a couple of weeks, it will be tried out by 500 ZoomTown subscribers. And if that goes well, it might be available to the general public by mid-March, according to Cincinnati Bell spokeswoman Tressie Long.

"It is very much in line with the communication business that we're in,'' she said. "It's a cool way of communicating. And it allows us to be very much high-tech. We like being able to say we're offering our customers the latest technology.''

Long and other Bell officials do not know of any other local phone company that is as close to deploying video e-mail, though a form of the service is already being offered by national telecommunications company AT&T. Yahoo! Mail and MSN Hotmail are reportedly working on video e-mail products as well.

But ConnectMail has some important differences from those systems, Solomon said.

ZoomTown Video Email works over dial-up Internet connections, rather than requiring a broadband line like the other systems. And it is integrated into the e-mail platform, so users can record a video message in the system that they already know and seamlessly include an extra typed greeting or attachment. Recipients only need a Windows 98 or better system to watch the clips -- and they don't need to be signed up to any particular service.

ZoomTown also plans to offer video e-mail for $4.95 per month with unlimited use and viewing, while other providers add on a per-minute fee each time a video greeting is opened. ZoomTown also promises no pop-up advertising boxes or forced viewing of another company's commercials. And it anticipates selling Web cameras with microphones for $39.95 to get people started.

ConnectMail is licensing its software to Bell for a flat fee that Solomon would not disclose. Bell has exclusive rights to offer it in this market for some time, though ConnectMail is free to sell it to phone companies and e-mail providers elsewhere.

"This really isn't being done like we're doing it anywhere else. This is true cutting-edge,'' Solomon said.

by Rachel Melcer, Courier Staff Reporter. Copyright ©l 2002 American City Business Journals Inc.


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