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VoIP firm Vonage tests routers for mobile service

You can already make a Net-based call from a cafe--if you're a tech whiz lugging a laptop. Vonage wants to take the process mainstream.

Vonage, a provider of Internet-based calling services, is testing wireless routers, a sign the company is on the verge of debuting a mobile offering.

The ongoing customer trials involve a new Linksys Wi-Fi router that Vonage could market along with its calling plans, according to an e-mail sent to customers and seen by CNET Vonage has in the past acknowledged that its customers are also testing a handset equipped with a Wi-Fi antenna and radio.

With the special router and handset, individual customers would be free to roam about their home or office, untethered from a modem or phone jack and without a connection to a laptop or desktop computer. Vonage could also market the routers to hot spot providers such as Boingo Wireless for installation in airports, coffeehouses and other such locations where wireless hubs have slowly begun to appear.

Current Wi-Fi hot spots often pose problems for VoIP users. In theory, someone should be able to walk into a Wi-Fi-enabled cafe, fire up a laptop, log on to the Internet and start dialing. But that now requires technical know-how and configuration hassles that most consumers don't want to deal with. The new routers are designed to do most of the heavy lifting.

Vonage and many others among the new breed of telephone companies using voice over Internet Protocol, are trying to cash in on mobility in the same way cell phone operators have. Skype, a Vonage competitor, says it's working on a Wi-Fi handset similar to Vonage's.

VoIP is software to make or get phone calls using an Internet connection, and it's expected to roil the traditional telephone industry because VoIP calls are much cheaper and come with many more features.

Support for Wi-Fi continues to grow, a positive sign as Vonage and other VoIP operators prepare their own services. On Friday, cell phone operator Nextel Communications, which is in the midst of being purchased by rival Sprint, began offering a $40-a-month service providing unlimited access to 7,000 hot spots run by partners Boingo and Wayport.