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BellSouth offers VoIP for businesses

The regional phone provider will sell Internet-based telephone services to small and medium-size businesses.

Regional phone company BellSouth said Tuesday that it plans to sell Internet-based telephone services, or VoIP, to small and medium-size businesses.

The Atlanta-based company, which has 45 million customers in 15 countries, emphasized what it called the new offering's "easy migration path to voice over Internet Protocol." The company said businesses want a service that allows them to gradually switch to Internet-based phone systems without overhauling their networks.

"Businesses are seeking to maximize voice and data investments, converge networks and reduce total communication costs," Dick Anderson, president of BellSouth's Customer Markets group, said in a statement.

The phone company's service comes as several states, federal agencies and the courts grapple with regulating the emerging technology. While traditional phone calls use proprietary networks, VoIP calls travel over the Internet. As a result, such phone calls are cheaper but also fall into a regulatory gray area.

The Federal Communications Commission this week accepted testimony from 50 companies on the question of whether and how the government should regulate such services.

In its filing, BellSouth argued that the federal government should impose a nationwide plan in order to avoid what the company's attorneys called "potentially diverse and inconsistent state determinations."

BellSouth's announcement also comes just a week after the company was dealt a VoIP-related setback in its home state. The Georgia Public Service Commission ordered BellSouth to let customers buy broadband services alone, which some hailed as a win for the growing number of people using Internet telephone providers.

Before the ruling, anyone buying digital subscriber line (DSL) broadband service from BellSouth was required to pay for a telephone line, whether they wanted it or not. Critics claimed that the added cost was a deterrent for anyone wishing to subscribe to an IP telephone plan.

BellSouth's service is designed for businesses of between 12 and "several hundred" phone users. Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks are providing the hardware.

The phone company has other IP projects in the works, including market trials for Centrex IP, and other Net telephone services it expects to launch next year.