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AT&T strikes VoIP deals with cable

Company points potential Net phone customers to cable giants for broadband--all part of Ma Bell's aggressive VoIP plans.

In an attempt to spark growth in its Net phone service, AT&T has turned to cable companies to pitch the technology to more consumers.

Ma Bell last week launched a co-marketing program with Comcast to drive sales of its CallVantage voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service, a Comcast spokeswoman confirmed. When customers call about CallVantage and disclose that they do not have broadband Internet access, AT&T will forward these calls to the cable giant.

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Time Warner Cable recently introduced a similar marketing agreement with AT&T, according to Time Warner Cable spokesman Mark Harrad. Cox Communications also has an agreement with the company, according to Cox spokesman Bobby Amirshahi.

AT&T, in turn, is using these cable channels to distribute direct marketing pitches for the CallVantage service. Given the growing popularity of Internet phone calling--and the need to have a broadband Internet connection to use it--the partnerships are a way for AT&T and cable companies to skirt their local phone rivals.

The deals underscore the importance of VoIP in AT&T's long-term plans. The phone giant recently said it would stop selling voice services to new customers due to changes in regulatory law but added that it would aggressively market less-regulated VoIP services.

AT&T spokesman Gary Morgenstern would not confirm whether the company has struck deals specifically with the cable providers. However, he said such marketing agreements are good for both parties.

"We are looking for any number of channels to open up so we can sell that service," Morgenstern said about CallVantage. "Any way that we can help expand that broadband market is all the better."

For Comcast, the deal could represent another way to tap the growing demand for broadband access in the United States.

"This is a great opportunity for us to further grow our high-speed Internet business," said Comcast spokeswoman Jeanne Russo. "If (customers) don't have a broadband connection in Comcast's footprint, AT&T will refer them to get a broadband connection from us."

The hoopla surrounding VoIP stems from its affordability for both companies and consumers. People place VoIP calls using the Internet instead of the heavily regulated and taxed local phone networks.

However, the Baby Bell local phone companies are getting into the game as well. Last month, Verizon Communications, the nation's largest Bell, launched its own VoIP service, called VoiceWing.

Cable companies have taken different routes in selling voice services. Time Warner Cable has embraced VoIP and plans to sell its Digital Phone service to all of its customer regions by the end of the year.

Comcast does not sell VoIP but continues to offer voice services through its network.