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U.S. Senate Getting Gaga-Compliant Phone System (and Visual Voicemail!)

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 21 2010

Lady Gaga's campaign to rally the masses against "Don't Ask Don't Tell" recently ran into a snag when the New Yorker's calls to her home-state senators found busy signals and full voicemailboxes. The Senate telephone system, though, is about to get an upgrade intended to help senators and staffers better cope with the influx of calls someone like Gaga can direct towards Capitol Hill.

In the coming weeks, the Senate will get a new voicemail system, Assistant Sergeant at Arms and Senate CIO Kim Winn tells me, that employs the same sort of visual voicemail system that has freed millions of iPhone users from the agony of having to navigate through full voicemail boxes linearly, message by message. The system will also be bigger bandwidth, able to handle far more than the 100 to 200 calls that, Winn reports, max out a Senate office's main mailbox right now.

Of course, Senate offices have a responsibility to practice good voicemail message hygiene, cleaning through boxes with diligence so callers like Lady Gaga don't hear, "The mailbox belonging to Senator Gillibrand is full. Goodbye." But the inadequacy of a congressional call-cap measured in the hundreds sets itself in stark relief when you consider that Gaga has 6.4 million people who follow her on Twitter.

Making something as old-school as voicemail more robust isn't a technological adjustment that the Senate expected to have to make in the Internet era, admits Winn. "The speculation [in the Senate] for a number of years is that people would stop calling," he says. "They'd email, they'd go online."

But Winn tells me that the trend they're seeing is, instead, that "the volume of calls keeps going up." Beyond Gaga's online call-to-action, click-call tools have gained traction in online activism in recent years, such as with Advomatic's tool by that name. Talk radio and cable TV also do their part to drive calls to Congress. Add to that an American people who seem willing to tap into their cellphone minutes or use their unlimited Vonage voice-over-IP plans to ring up Washington. "My educated guess," says Winn, "is that since people have stopped paying long-distance, there are fewer impediments to calling. You can be stopped at a light, and someone on the radio says, 'Call your senator,' and you can do it right then, right from your car."

Faced with the influx, Senate office's have chosen, often, to let the phone ring. "The voicemail system is catching more calls," says Winn. The goal, now, is to equip the United States Senate with the tools it needs to handle Lady Gaga.

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