Broadband provider EarthLink has begun selling a new Internet phone service that's designed to be easy to use and require no additional hardware.
The company has partnered with broadband access wholesaler Covad Communications to offer the voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, service in Dallas, Seattle and the San Francisco-San Jose area starting this week. EarthLink is bundling the new service with DSL (digital subscriber line) broadband access. More cities in Covad's territory will offer the service later this year; EarthLink would not specify which.
Unlike other VoIP services, including the one EarthLink currently sells for $20 a month, the new service doesn't require consumers to add hardware. Customers can use their existing phones and plug them into phone jacks as they would with any regular telephone service. The technology, called "line-powered voice," puts all the intelligence and equipment for offering VoIP service in Covad's central office, where all the gear to provide the DSL service is housed.
This approach differs from that of most other VoIP services, such as Vonage's. Those services require a special adapter to be hooked to the phone and the broadband connection.
"The line-powered service works just like a plain old telephone system," said Jim Bagnato, director of voice services for EarthLink. "You simply plug your existing phone into the wall and it works. But the calls go over an IP network, so you're also able to get all the IP features."
These new features include e-mail-based voice mail that lets people listen to their messages by clicking on a link in an e-mail, a blocked-caller list that stops annoying calls from ringing and prohibits blocked callers from leaving voice mail messages, an integrated contact list that merges contacts in e-mail with the phone service, and many other call features.
EarthLink is charging $69.95 per month for its top tier package, which includes unlimited calling within the U.S. plus 8mbps (megabits per second) download and 1mbps upload DSL service. For customers who are too far from the central office to get the full 8mbps, the company is offering an unlimited calling plan with DSL service that has 1.5mbps downloads and 384kbps (kilobits per second) uploads for $64.95. And it's also offering a 500 minute calling plan with 1.5mbps downloads and 384kbps uploads for $49.95.
As dial-up Internet users abandon slower access for broadband, EarthLink has been challenged to find broadband pipes on which to sell its service. Unlike phone companies and cable providers, EarthLink doesn't own its broadband infrastructure. It must rely on other providers to lease capacity in order to sell a service.
Last year, the company suffered a couple of serious blows as first the U.S. Supreme Court and then the Federal Communications Commission said that cable modem and DSL providers do not have to share their infrastructure with competitors like EarthLink.
As a result, the company has been looking for alternative access technologies, such as broadband service delivered via power line, WiMax and citywide Wi-Fi.
The company has won a bid to build a citywide wireless network in Philadelphia, based on Wi-Fi technology. It also plans to build similar networks in several other cities, including Anaheim, Calif.