When the Internet revolution began in earnest in the late 1990s, many technology experts were touting the development of Internet telephony, a category of hardware and software that enables people to use the Internet to transmit telephone calls.The software, also known as voice over IP, could be extremely useful in linking call centers and Web sites. With Internet telephony, a consumer only needs one telephone line to browse the Internet and speak with a call center agent.

Although major telecommunications companies continue to tout the technology, Internet telephony has not become a mainstream application.

"Companies are hesitant to implement voice over IP because it has yet to be proven that it is an effective technology," says Brian Huff, an analyst with Datamonitor, a New York-based technology research and consulting firm.

"There are still latency concerns in that when someone speaks, there is about a five-second delay before you hear the voice. The technology is sound, but bandwidth restrictions are still a major issue."

Some insurance industry executives say they are interested in implementing the technology, but they don't believe the time is right.

"We have access to LipStream's voice over IP technology, but we're not using it yet," says Tom Capp, director of marketing for Esurance Inc., a San Francisco-based company that markets insurance through its Web site and call center. "The performance of the product was fine, but research shows that consumers aren't that interested in using it."

Not impressed

Wausau Insurance Co. also has been given a demonstration of the technology, but came away unimpressed by it. "We didn't feel that the bandwidth issue has been solved yet and that affected the quality of the conversation," says Ed Hanlon, managing executive of emerging markets, underwriting and operations, for the Wausau, Wis.-based carrier. "Most home PCs are not equipped for voice over IP."

Most companies that are evaluating the technology say that they will wait for large-scale consumer adoption of the technology before pressing ahead. "We're disappointed with the consumer take-up of the technology," says Keith Lippiatt, chief technology officer of InsWeb Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based insurance Web marketplace.

"The usage has not grown significantly during the past 18 months, which is somewhat surprising. There is a lot less hype with voice over IP than there was 18 months ago."

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