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VoIP provider dusts off free-call strategy

As makers of IM software did years ago, a new VoIP company hoping to differentiate itself from the pack is offering 100 minutes of free phone calling to home, office or mobile phones.

Net-phoning provider StanaPhone Communications unveiled on Monday a new offer that resurrects a doomed business model of the late 1990s: free phone calls between a computer and any home, office or mobile phone.

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StanaPhone now gives customers downloading its VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) software 100 free voice minutes every 30 days. Other VoIP providers charge for connections--some by the minute, others monthly--for as low as $20 a month for unlimited dialing.

As with other VoIP software, StanaPhone's product enables users to make unlimited free phone calls between PCs or laptops--calls that sidestep traditional telephone networks.

New York City-based StanaPhone is among the first of the new generation of VoIP providers to recycle a strategy from the '90s, when Yahoo, America Online and Microsoft's MSN introduced Net phone calling through their instant-messaging applications. At first, the scheme prompted millions of minutes of calls, according to Sarah Hofstetter, vice president at Net2Phone, which was hired to provide the bridge between PCs and phones.

But Hofstetter said that when IM makers started charging for PC-to-phone service a few months later, traffic dropped to almost nothing, becoming, as she put it, "de minimus."

A StanaPhone representative said the company, whose software is free, will gain revenue through "add-on services" it will introduce later. The representative said StanaPhone isn't revealing what telephone companies it's working with to provide the PC-to-phone bridge.

VoIP is a decade-old technique for digitizing phone calls and dispatching them over the public Internet or a corporate IP network. Such calls are generally less expensive, because they avoid traditional telephone networks, which are heavily regulated and taxed. But VoIP technology and services are still in their nascent stages, and consumers have yet to embrace Net phone calling in huge numbers.