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VoIP provider to block eavesdroppers

VoicePulse will use encryption to secure Net phone calls--part of a trend that could pull in business customers but raise problems for law enforcement agencies.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Net-phoning provider VoicePulse says it plans to use encryption to secure calls, part of an industry trend that could pull in business customers but raise problems for law enforcement wiretaps.

The company announced the move on Tuesday at the Spring 2004 Voice on the Net Conference & Expo here, where industry executives spoke on the growing adoption of encryption security as an added service feature.

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VoicePulse said the new feature will prevent electronic or traditional eavesdropping on customers' phone calls. It encrypts the part of the call that travels alongside other data on the public Internet, the first time this approach has been taken by a commercial voice over Internet Protocol service provider (VoIP), according to VoicePulse.

VoicePulse President Ravi Sakaria said he believes the company's competitors, which now include AT&T, will also make it standard to protect the data in calls from being captured by outsiders. He said it will ease privacy concerns, satisfying current subscribers and making voice calling over the Internet more palatable to potential business customers.

"Encryption will not cost extra, and we do intend to encrypt every call on all plans," Sakaria said. "As a service provider, we feel that providing encryption is a requirement, not an option."

Mark Child, a marketing director for communications hardware specialist Zultys Technologies, agreed that there has been a rise in interest. Service providers have increased their orders for phones with built-in encryption in the past two months, he said at the VON conference. "We've been especially strong in Japan, where the market's more advanced," he said.

But federal law enforcement agencies have expressed concern over encryption in Net phoning and are pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to make VoIP calls open to wiretaps and other investigation demands, as traditional phone calls are.

In response, broadband telephony service providers have said they intend to comply with any law enforcement request, where it's technically feasible. Adding encryption "makes it no harder, or easier, to capture calls," Sakaria said.

VoicePulse, which sells a $25-a-month calling plan, follows free phone service provider Skype in encrypting calls. However, Skype's service is restricted to calls made between broadband-enabled computers, while VoicePulse subscribers can also call the more than 90 percent of homes that use traditional phones.

Electronics maker Sipura Technology, which supplies phones for the VoicePulse service, is expected to announce the availability of a software upgrade offering the encyrption at the VON conference on Tuesday. It will send the update to existing VoicePulse customers and will install the technology on all new phones.

The conference focuses on VoIP, a technology for making phone calls that uses the Internet Protocol, the most popular method of sending data from one computer to another. Connecting phone calls over the Internet also opens the door to advanced communications services that tie voice together with e-mail, instant messaging and videoconferencing--something that Microsoft and others are already working to achieve.