Skype offers free calling to phones in U.S., Canada

Customers can make free calls to regular and mobile phones until the end of 2006, as the company tries to boost usage.

Skype users can now make free SkypeOut calls to traditional landline and mobile phones in the U.S. and Canada until the end of the year, the company announced Monday.

Skype, which offers software that allows people to talk over an Internet connection using their PCs, is trying to get more people in North America to use its SkypeOut service, which typically charges people to make calls to a traditional or mobile phone. Skype calls made between PCs are free.

Skype, owned by online auctioneer eBay, doesn't break out the number of people using its premium services such as SkypeOut. But as of the end of April, it claimed to have , nearly double the number of registered users it had in September 2005. About 6 million of those consumers are in the U.S., said a company spokeswoman. By comparison, China has 13 million registered users and Germany has 5 million.

"Millions of consumers around the world are flocking to Skype every month," Henry Gomez, general manager for Skype in North America, said in a statement. "And we believe free SkypeOut calling will rapidly accelerate Skype adoption in the U.S. and Canada."

While Skype executives are hoping to drum up more business with this promotion, SkypeOut calling is free only until the end of 2006. What's more, calls made to and within all countries other than the U.S. and Canada will continue to incur charges at current rates.

The free SkypeOut promotion comes at a time when competitors such as Yahoo and AOL are integrating more call features into their instant-messaging clients. Starting Tuesday, AOL instant-messaging users will be able to use AIM Phoneline, a new service that allows people to make calls from their IM client to regular phones. AOL's service lets subscribers get free incoming calls from regular phones. But it charges a monthly fee to make calls to regular phones or cell phones.

While the SkypeOut service will allow free calling to regular phones, the company will continue to charge people to get calls using a service it calls SkypeIn, which costs about $38 for an unlimited 12-month subscription. Consumers can get the service for three months for about $12.80.

Skype is also trying to attract new users by enhancing its services. Last week, it released a new test version of its software that adds more features and functionality to the service.

For example, it's adding a feature called Skypecasts, which are live, moderated discussions that allow groups of Skype users to discuss shared interests. The company also added SMS (Short Message Service), integration with Outlook e-mail contact lists, and shared contact lists.
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