SBC seeks new Net phone fees

Company pursuing different wholesale access rates to its local phone network for Net phone providers.

As soon as Thursday, SBC will introduce a new set of wholesale access services to let Internet phone service providers complete customer calls on SBC's local phone network, the company said.

This marks the second time one of the nation's leading local phone companies has offered such a package to carriers.

The carrier's Web site indicates its "Tiptop" brand set of services and wholesale access to SBC's network will be available in 12 of SBC's 13 major markets, with Connecticut to be launched in December.

While Tiptop terms and pricing ultimately need approval from the Federal Communications Commission, SBC can go forward now, according to FCC rules. An FCC spokesman said on Wednesday that the carrier hadn't yet delivered the necessary paperwork. SBC said in an earlier FCC filing that it intended to do so at an undisclosed time.

SBC did not disclose Tiptop's prices in its public filings or return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment Wednesday.

The hubbub surrounding SBC's plans involve scores of providers of home phone services using a broadband connection, rather than the heavily taxed and regulated traditional local phone network. While such calls generally avoid local phone lines, making them a much cheaper alternative, access to local phone networks is required to allow unlimited calling to any telephone number in the United States.

The nation's leading local carriers see Net phone carriers using so-called voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology from cable companies and VoIP-specialist upstarts such as Vonage, as a threat, given that cheaper VoIP services could lure customers away in droves.

Tiptop could be a way for SBC to counteract that potential revenue loss, giving SBC an opportunity to charge VoIP providers more for access to their local phone networks than the carrier would otherwise be allowed to.

But as VoIP providers pointed out Wednesday, for now Tiptop will be one of several options each has to complete calls to SBC customers, so there's little immediate fear. Even if SBC does charge higher rates for the access than VoIP providers are paying now, they could turn to any number of other traditional phone companies or third-party wholesalers that have agreements with SBC already.

In Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, which first reported SBC's efforts, executives stressed Tiptop is just like any other product SBC sells.

The SBC action comes just a few days after the company said it will begin selling residential phone services that use the Internet in 2005, aiming for those in its existing U.S. markets who buy broadband access but gave up their traditional home phones.

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