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Qwest to Net-phone home a little late

It's still in the lab, so the already delayed VoIP service debut is weeks away, CEO confirms.

Local phone operator Qwest Communications International will be months late in introducing Internet telephony for homes, apparently due to quality-of-service issues.

Qwest last year promised residential phone service based on voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) by the end of the year. But on Tuesday, Qwest CEO Richard Notebaert gave financial analysts a new time frame for the service.

"Let's say the second quarter," he said. He added that the operator is now testing the service's "scalability"--industry jargon for ensuring service quality regardless of subscriber numbers or traffic levels on Qwest's infrastructure.

VoIP technology allows Internet connections to double as inexpensive local phone lines. The calls use the unregulated Internet, so VoIP operators aren't saddled with state and federal telephones regulations that drive up the cost of calls.

The setback puts Qwest further behind cable operators, local phone company rivals and others in the race to offer cheaper VoIP calling plans to tens of millions of U.S. homes with Internet connections

Ironically, Qwest was the first major U.S. local phone company to sell VoIP, in a small trial offering in Minnesota.

But Qwest has tinkered with the service and hasn't yet expanded beyond that initial trial. Meanwhile, rivals jumped into the VoIP market. Most notably, U.S. cable operators now use VoIP to complete a "triple play" of discounted television, broadband and phone services. Comcast, Cox and other cable providers are the biggest benefactors of VoIP, mainly because they?ve built networks that connect directly into people's homes, just like the nation's four regional Bell operators.

"We've faced cable competition from the day we walked in the door," Notebaert said when asked about the VoIP delay. "This lull will make no difference."