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SBC offers Net-based phones for business

One of the nation's largest local phone companies is for the first time widely offering Internet-based phone technology for its business customers.

SBC Communications, one of the nation's largest local phone companies, is for the first time widely offering Internet-based phone technology for its business customers.

Using equipment from communications-gear giants Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks, SBC said Monday it will sell two IP (Internet Protocol) phone systems. One, a "pure" IP phone system, will operate using only Net technology. The other, a separate IP-enabled system, will allow customers to continue using their older phone gear but later upgrade to Net-based voice technology if they want to.

Regardless, both systems are designed to offer businesses lower-cost calls and new features, brought about by the close integration of traditional voice and new Internet technologies. The new features could include unified messaging, which keeps track of multiple messages from voicemail, mobile phones and email, as well as video conferencing, allowing callers to see one another.

Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology routes phone calls using Internet-based methods. The technology splits a voice call into many "packets," the delivery of which allows for more efficiency and lower costs than traditional circuit-switched phone systems can manage. The packets are reassembled at the receiving end and, in theory, sound virtually indistinguishable from traditional signals. However, the quality of early Internet-based phone calls was often subpar.

The support of a major Baby Bell phone company is good news for the equipment makers, which have been battered in recent months. The success of new VoIP gear could help boost their sagging sales. Some analysts are skeptical of the need for Internet-based voice systems, though, saying the benefits are yet unclear.

But many communications carriers are testing the systems. These service providers may eventually install these systems for their purported cost savings. The Net-phone technology also integrates well with other data systems, potentially making a host of new voice and Internet services possible. However, many carriers have reduced their spending on equipment amid an economic downturn.

SBC said it would sell Cisco's AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data) system and Nortel's Meridian 1 ITG (Internet Telephone Gateway) and BCM (Business Communications Manager).

SBC first announced its plans to offer VoIP technology in October and signed a contract with the City of Dallas, its first customer, in November.