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Office Depot hears call for VoIP

The office equipment supplier jumps into the growing market of placing cheap calls over the Net.

Office Depot plans to start selling Internet phones and calling plans in November, another sign of the growing popularity of cheaper Net dialing.

All of the office equipment supplier's 900 outlets, plus its Web site, will sell phones that plug into laptops along with any of five calling plans from Voiceglo, one of dozens of Net phone service providers that have cropped up in the last two years.

A Voiceglo representative said Office Depot's move into voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology is a first for the company. An Office Depot representative did not return calls seeking comment.

The number of U.S. households making calls over the Internet, rather than the heavily regulated and taxed phone network, is expected to reach 12 million by 2009, according to a recent study from Jupiter Research. About 17 percent of all homes with broadband in the United States are expected to use Net telephony in 2009, up from just 1 percent by the end of 2004.

The leading providers of VoIP, AT&T, Vonage Holdings and 8x8, distribute their services through consumer electronics outlets such as Circuit City and Best Buy.

Retail outlets play a key role in any product's success. But currently, many sales staff at retail stores are largely unfamiliar with VoIP products because they are relatively new, said Stratecast Partners analyst Diane Myers. While phones that use the Internet have been around for a decade, they are just now reaching the general consumer market.

"Stores are a great opportunity," she said. "But the typical employee at retail shops can't answer all your questions."