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Net telephony waits for call

Net telephony advocates mount a large-scale demonstration of voice communications over the Internet through ordinary telephones.

Internet telephony advocates are mounting a large-scale demonstration of voice communications over the Net through ordinary telephones.

The demonstration, called Free World Dial-up II, is scheduled for June 15, and will attempt to find as many locations throughout the world through special Internet telephone gateway software, allowing users to make long distance calls for next to nothing. Jeff Pulver, a leading Net telephony proponent and analyst, is organizing the event.

The first generation of Internet telephones from companies such as VocalTec, Microsoft, and Netscape allow users to engage in crackly, CB radio-style phone conversations through their computers via the Internet. But analysts believe that the technology may have far greater potential if it can be adapted to work with the more than 700 million telephones around the globe instead.

Already a handful of companies, including Lucent Technologies, Rockwell, and VocalTec, have built gateway software that links standard phones to each other over the Internet. The software would allow a caller in New York, for example, to call a local gateway, hear a new Internet dial tone, and then dial a phone number in Paris. The call would be routed over the Net through another gateway in Paris and received by the other caller.

If such gateways are widely deployed, the implications could be tremendous for telecommunications companies since voice calls over the Internet are not subject to long distance tariffs.

"The telcos are aware that if they don't cannibalize their own telephony business it will happen from other quarters," said Rebecca Wedsell, an Internet analyst with the TeleChoice consultancy. "They know they need to act."

Some telecommunications companies are already acting, though Wedsell estimates that new Net phone services won't be available for another two years. According to Lucent, it's Net telephony gateway is being tested by MCI, GTE, Teleport Communications Group, and France Telecom.

For telephone companies that make most of their revenue from pricey long distance calls, the prospect of losing customers is daunting. "The business model is one of the things they are working on right now," Wedsell said. "That has yet to be worked out."

While telecommunications carriers are working out the business models, other companies, such as Internet service providers and corporations, are taking matters into their own hands and starting Net telephony trials of their own. Lucent said that it outfitted an online book seller in Germany, ABC B?cherdienst, with a Net telephony server. Unbeknownst to after-hours callers to the company's support line, they will be redirected over the Internet to a call center in Boca Raton, Florida, for a conversation with a German-speaking operator.

Net telephony advocates like Pulver believe that the quality of Net phone calls is improving quickly too. Pulver said he has received 20 firm commitments to supply Net telephony gateways for the Free World Dial up in June. Among the groups that have agreed to set up the gateways are ISPs, telecommunications companies, cable operators, corporations, governments, and universities.

By getting as many people as possible communicating over the Internet through regular phones, Pulver said he hopes to put Internet telephony on the agenda of the world's telecommunications companies.