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Qwest finally on VoIP quest

Its OneFlex Premier service debuts late, and now Qwest must play catch up with cable companies and VoIP competitors such as Vonage.

Qwest Communications, the fourth-largest phone company in the United States, this week began selling a $30-a-month home Internet phone service, quietly reentering a market it once led but in which it since has lost significant competitive ground.

The service, marketed as OneFlex Premier, uses voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, software, which allows Internet connections to double as inexpensive local phone lines.

By waiting until now to deliver OneFlex Premier, Qwest must play catch up to cable operators and third-party vendors, such as Vonage, that are signing up tens of thousands of U.S. households a week to VoIP service.

It's an ironic twist. Qwest was the first major telephone operator to sell VoIP, debuting a trial in Minnesota in August 2003. But, as Qwest executives recently disclosed, further rollouts stalled as the company struggled with problems of "scalability," or ensuring the service is reliable no matter how many people are using it.

With those problems apparently now solved, the operator expanded the service throughout its 14-state territory on Wednesday.

VoIP calls are unregulated in the United States, so plans such as OneFlex Premier aren't saddled with as many of the state and federal telephone strictures that drive up the cost of traditional phone service. VoIP operators also can offer free voice mail and other services for which providers of traditional phone service typically charge premiums.