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Net phone start-up adds conferencing

Peer-to-peer service provider Skype is adding conference calling to its software that lets people make free calls over the Internet.

Peer-to-peer service provider Skype Technologies is adding conference calling to its software that lets people make free calls over the Internet.

The company on Monday announced Skype beta 0.97, which allows up to five people to talk with each other simultaneously, regardless of their locations. Like the original version of the Skype software, the new version is also free of charge and available for download on the company's Web site.

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Skype's service uses voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), a technology for placing phone calls online rather than over traditional public telephone networks. Currently, the software, which includes a user-built global directory, instant messaging, call tracking and alert options, can only be used with PCs. But the company is working with cordless-phone makers to introduce devices that can connect with both Skype users and those on the traditional phone network. It also plans to release software for personal digital assistants (PDAs) in the next few months.

Launched in August 2003, Skype is offered in 15 languages and has nearly 3 million users from more than 165 countries, according to the company. Skype claims to be registering an average of 15 new users per minute.

VoIP is gaining in popularity among consumers and business customers, and large telecommunications providers like AT&T and Verizon Communications have started talking about using the technology.

"The rapid proliferation of broadband is a tremendous opportunity to get everyone to start using Skype," said founder Niklas Zennstrom. "Internet telephony is in its infancy and our talented team wants to lead the innovations forward--beyond what we can imagine today."