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Cox tests Internet phone service

The cable provider will begin testing different voice over IP telephone subscription plans later this year, a crucial step before launching a commercial service.

Cox Communications will begin testing different voice over Internet Protocol telephone subscription plans later this year, a crucial step before launching a commercial service, executives said Wednesday.

VoIP lets users place telephone calls through the Internet, avoiding a telephone company's local and long-distance networks.

Cox Senior Vice President Dallas Clement told financial analysts that the marketing trial will also investigate what alternative power supplies to sell alongside VoIP dialing plans. One of VoIP?s major problems is that when electricity is disrupted, modems go down and the phones no longer work.

Clement?s comments represent a new step for the cable provider, which has been conducting a trial of the technology in Roanoke, Va. Cox already sells telephone service to about 830,000 subscribers, but it uses a telephone technology different from VoIP.

While Clement said Cox intends to launch VoIP services in 2004, he declined to be specific. No prices for the services were announced.

"Once VoIP as a technology and service is ready for prime time, I believe that deployment could come more quickly," he said. "Right now, Cox is seeing great success in our present strategy."

After years of over-promising and under-delivering, VoIP providers such as Vonage are generating renewed interest among consumers, thanks to a sharp growth in broadband connections to the home, improvements in quality of service and hookups that allow VoIP calls over ordinary telephone handsets rather than clunky PC microphone systems. While cable companies Comcast and Cox are expected to be among the biggest winners as customers switch from traditional phone service to VoIP service, the companies have been hesitant to do so because of questions about the technology.

VoIP services typically promise a smaller phone bill, virtually wiping out charges for long-distance calls. In addition, phone calls over the Internet could eventually open the door to advanced communications services that tie voice together with e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing--something that Microsoft and others are already working to achieve.