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Personal toll-free numbers move to the Net

While the business world can't survive without 800 numbers, the public has. Will a cheaper Internet version catch on?

The personal 1-800 number is attempting a comeback--on the Internet.

Internet phone provider LibreTel now sells a home phone service that lets people receive an unlimited number of calls over the Internet for $6 a month. No dialing out is allowed, however, not even to 911. The service, called Port-of-Call, functions like a toll-free 1-800 number, now a staple in the corporate world.

LibreTel provides a second telephone number to those who already have a broadband phone service. They're not 800-prefix numbers, but 10-digit local numbers within 15 area codes on the East Coast. A person leaving many friends behind in Miami to move to Seattle, for example, could find the service a useful way to help stay in touch; although the person might be living in Seattle, he or she could choose a telephone number in the Miami area, so friends could call and only pay local dialing charges.

Personal 1-800 numbers, first offered by traditional phone operators a few years ago, never caught on--a failure blamed mostly on their high cost. But Port-of-Call uses the unregulated Internet and voice over Internet Protocol technology, rather than relying on a local phone company's heavily taxed and regulated services. That often results in dramatic savings.

Port-of-Call costs $6 a month for unlimited inbound calls, while carriers offering traditional personal 1-800 numbers charge 20 cents a minute. Internet telephony providers offering full inbound and outbound call services charge about $25 a month.

Another major advantage of Port-of-Call, and Internet phones in general, is that the service is available on any high-speed Internet connection. Traditional 1-800 numbers are rooted to one place.

While aimed primarily at consumers, there's ample opportunity for such services to catch on with big businesses, said Jeff Pulver, a co-founder of LibreTel. A growing number of companies are ripping out traditional telephone equipment and installing systems that use the Internet to realize cost savings, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in customer call-in centers.

"I think this can be a $100 million-a-year industry," Pulver said during a phone interview this week.

Port-of-Call also poses a fresh question for federal utility regulators who are now drafting Net phone rules, which are expected to be limited in scope to nurture the young Internet phone industry. Pulver said Port-of-Call should be free from state and federal telephone regulations.

"If I was providing an outbound calling service, then I'd be expected to meet some social obligations, like offering 911 or funding rural telephone expansion," as traditional phone companies now do, Pulver said. "But this is in-bound only. I don't feel I have any social responsibilities."

A Federal Communications Commission official on Tuesday commented that Port-of-Call "looks interstate to us," a distinction that means it's the jurisdiction of the federal government, and not states, which want to regulate the calls to keep their own publicly funded projects afloat.