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BellSouth to charge for Net calls

In a move that could drive up prices for voice calls carried over the Net, BellSouth plans to charge long distance firms access fees.

In a move that could drive up prices for voice calls carried over the Internet, BellSouth said long distance companies will no longer escape access charges in its nine-state region.

In April, the Federal Communications Commission shied away from reclassifying Net telephony companies--such as Qwest--as long distance carriers, which pay access charges to local phone companies to support the nation's universal service fund.

But BellSouth argues that companies carrying voice calls over Internet protocol (IP) should not be exempt from paying the access charges.

"They are looking for a free ride," said BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey.

Starting in November, BellSouth will charge the long distance carriers about 1 cent per minute for every IP call that is connected. BellSouth said six unnamed companies would be affected.

"If it functions like a phone and rings like a phone, it's a phone," BellSouth stated in an open letter to long distance companies.

"Information or enhanced services providers offer users the ability to interact with stored data and to retrieve data; for example, to surf the Web, exchange email, or download information," the company continued. "The FCC's access charge exemption clearly applies to this enhanced traffic.

"In contrast, the service offered by these companies is merely basic long distance service," the letter added. "If the service offered to the public is long distance service, it is subject to access charges, regardless of the means of transmission."

The Net telephony companies will likely turn to the FCC to mediate. But the agency could end up swinging in BellSouth's favor when it comes to traditional long distance companies such as AT&T or MCI Communications.

In its April decision, the agency left the door open to reclassify some IP telephony companies as telecommunications companies.

"The commission observed that certain forms of IP telephony lack the characteristics that would render them 'information services' within the meaning of the statute, and bear the characteristics of 'telecommunication services,'" the FCC stated.

Any change of heart by the FCC, could kill long distance companies' hopes of luring in new customers with less expense voice-over-IP services.

For example, AT&T has trials going in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Boston for its Net telephony service, Connect 'N Save, which is about 7.5 to 8.5 cents per minute for calls within the United States.

AT&T's reaction, for one, was cautious. "We haven't had a lot of time to evaluate it, but it unclear to us under what authority BellSouth is taking this action," said Janet Stone, a spokeswoman for AT&T. "It's also unclear to us how exactly they are going to apply this charge."