Every morning at 9, Seafax, a Portland, Maine, credit-information clearinghouse for the food industry, faxes close to 400 identical one-page newsletters. Transmittal of that many bulletins over Seafax's two dedicated fax lines normally would take three hours. But the company farms out the chore, via modem, to Xpedite Systems in Eatontown, N.J., one of a growing number of communications services capable of shotgunning the same fax to thousands of recipients at once. Time required: about three minutes.

Why the hurry? For one thing, says Seafax finance vice-president Mark Benton, letting someone else do the faxing clears office lines for ordinary business use. Another reason: clients dependent on the wire's start-of-the-day advisories receive equal treatment. Credit ratings, pricing, and other food-industry data are so changeable that clients who get the news first could gain a competitive advantage over those who get it later.

Initially, Benton attempted to batch-feed the newsletter sequentially into his in-house fax machine but was overwhelmed when the number of subscriptions started to soar. Xpedite's nick-of-time 1992 introduction of a direct PC-to-broadcaster interface capable of handling graphics "was a major cost saver," he says. If it weren't for the advent of "blast-a-fax" technology, "we'd have had to make a large capital investment in new phone lines and in new equipment to feed those phone lines." As it is, a fax sent over Xpedite's output lines (there are 1,200) costs from 23¢ to 38¢ a page, depending on time of day, quantity, and features. It's worth it, Benton feels, if only because the machines at Xpedite (800-966-3297) keep dialing till they connect.

Filling a different niche, Fax Access Xchange (FAX) manages incoming faxes. The premise: why pay for a separate fax line when you can subscribe to FAX's service at about half the price? For $120 a year, FAX gives a customer exclusive use of one of its phone numbers, which can be promoted and used for fax reception as if it were the customer's own. In addition to saving money on the phone line, a sole proprietor doesn't have to worry about paper jams and other pitfalls of leaving an office fax unattended, because FAX's computer stores messages it can't forward immediately. What's more, the customer can retrieve a fax from any fax station in the world by punching a personal-identification number into the fax's keypad.

"This concept had better work," FAX employee Beth Ellyn Rosenthal says, "because it's set in cement." Literally: the company dug up and then repaved the streets surrounding its Dallas operations center to lay the necessary cable. To give the new service a boost, Rosenthal devised a fax-on-demand magazine whose departments -- including business features, help-wanted ads, travel tips, even a horoscope -- are available free to subscribers. FAX plans to open soon in several more cities. For more information, call 214-931-5800.

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