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Sprint's big VoIP plans for small business

New system brings VoIP to small businesses with tight budgets, a move that's expected to intensify competition in the market.

Sprint has bolstered its lineup of small office Net phone equipment, a move that promises to intensify competition in the hot market for selling voice over Internet Protocol systems to companies with tiny budgets.

The Sprint i4 system provides small businesses with phone features such as voice mail, auto attendant and e-mail forwarding, Sprint Vice President Brad Clark said Thursday. The system combines the communications capabilities into a single piece of voice and data hardware and doesn't require a pre-existing network, Sprint said.

In years past, such equipment and features were based on traditional circuit switches, making them too expensive for small businesses. But advances in voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, on which the Sprint i4 is based, have helped bring the equipment prices down to affordable levels.

VoIP enables long-distance phone calls to be placed over the unregulated public Internet or, in the cases of businesses, over privately owned data networks. It's generally much cheaper than traditional, circuit-switched phone calling because of the efficiencies of using IP, and the calls aren't subject to telephone regulations.

Sprint joins a long list of tech heavyweights and top-tier telephone companies peddling slices of VoIP to small businesses. Sprint's biggest threat is likely from a partnership between Microsoft and Cisco Systems. In April, the two companies said they would begin selling Cisco Ethernet broadband routers, meant for companies with fewer than 20 employees, and Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 Standard Edition, which is a combination of the Windows Server operating system and Microsoft's Exchange e-mail server software. The deal includes integration support and software so that the router and server can work together.

Microsoft and Cisco expect the bundling strategy to make it easier for small to midsize businesses to begin using IP telephone service, customer relationship management software and other IP networking applications once reserved for Fortune 500 companies.