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Vonage to sell Wi-Fi phone

Company teams up with UTStarcom to develop a Wi-Fi phone that can be used over any public Wi-Fi network.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
Vonage will announce Tuesday the availability of its long-anticipated portable Wi-Fi phone that will let people use the company's IP telephony when they're connected to any public hot spot.

Vonage already offers a so-dubbed softphone client, which people can download from the Web site to turn their laptops into Vonage phones. But now the company will sell the F1000 handset manufactured by UTStarcom, which will offer Vonage's voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service over any public 802.11b network.

The phone is configured to let customers use existing Vonage call features, such as three-way calling, caller ID and voice mail. Handsets will have ring options including silent, vibrate and various ring tones. Customers will also be able to configure and save Wi-Fi profiles to ease connectivity. The F1000's battery offers about five hours of talk time and 50 hours to 100 hours of standby, Vonage said.

Handsets can be purchased starting Tuesday from the Vonage Web site for about $80 after an instant rebate. In order to use the phones, new and existing Vonage customers must subscribe to one of two phone services, which cost $14.99 and $24.99 per month.

Wi-Fi phones combine two hot technologies: Wi-Fi and VoIP, which lets Internet connections double as inexpensive phone lines. Typically, VoIP subscribers use a wired phone line, whether a home phone or any number of phones in an office. But many service providers, such as Vonage and EarthLink, see an opportunity to create wireless versions of their services using Wi-Fi. Introducing the appropriate VoIP services and technology could turn hot spots into giant phone booths.

There are a few aspects of the Vonage Wi-Fi phone, at least in its initial release, that may hamper adoption. First, the phone works only with public Wi-Fi hot spots, which means that people wandering into a Starbucks or in an airport hot spot where they're required to pay for network access won't be able to use their phones. And second, the mobile nature of the device makes it nearly impossible for emergency operators to automatically get the location of callers using a Wi-Fi VoIP phone away from home.

But Louis Holder, executive vice president of product development for Vonage, said that these issues will eventually be resolved. As cities, like Philadelphia and San Francisco, start blanketing their cities with wireless Internet access, people will have access to wider Wi-Fi coverage.

"The trend is definitely moving in that direction where more cities will offer free and open Wi-Fi in a lot of public areas," Holder said.

Even with citywide deployments, Wi-Fi won't be everywhere. Thus, a phone that can switch between the cellular network and a Wi-Fi network could be more useful. Cable operators Comcast, Time Warner, Cox Communications and Advance/Newhouse Communications, which have joined Sprint Nextel in a new joint venture, plan to create technology that lets cell phones roam in and out of Wi-Fi hot spots and the cellular network.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated the cost of the Wi-Fi phone service. Customers using Vonage's new Wi-Fi phone must subscribe to a separate service plan at either $14.99 or $24.99 per month.