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Networking

VoIP cozies up to cell phones

Net telephony shook up traditional phone service, now it's on to cell phone variants of VoIP for companies such as start-up Mint Telecom.

Jayson Jepson pays 29 cents a minute to call London on his cell phone. Wouldn't it be great, the founder of Mint Telecom asks rhetorically, if it were more like 2 cents a minute?

Now it is, courtesy of Mint and a growing corporate coterie selling cell phone versions of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software, which is used to transform Internet connections into inexpensive home or office phone lines.

Mint began offering a $7-a-month cell phone service two weeks ago. Skype, Vonage, IP Drum and other operators using VoIP software have caused tectonic shifts in the traditional phone-service industry. Now these same interests are dialing into cell phones, primarily because a growing number have high-speed Internet connections rivaling the performance of broadband operators, whether it's over a third-generation cell phone network or based on Wi-Fi wireless connectivity.

A speedy connection is very important to VoIP, in which calls travel on the Internet just like e-mails and instant messages. Because VoIP is intended for voice communication, it is relatively unforgiving of Internet connections afflicted by sluggishness or clipped or dropped signals.

Consumers, of course, must weigh the cost of VoIP cell phone access against the savings they might derive from standard VoIP. Cell phone subscribers, after all, already pay a monthly fee for cell phone service. So why would they pay a company like Mint $7 a month extra, plus a per-minute fee, to make a call on the same phone?

Jepson argues that the savings for customers using VoIP services are significant enough to make it worthwhile to buy cell phone access over VoIP. "You could ask the same question for VoIP in general," he wrote in an e-mail to CNET News.com. "It's $24.95 for an unlimited calling plus $20 to $40 a month for broadband just to save a few cents?"

Most cell phone VoIP software comes from start-ups such as IP Drum, which is based in Norway. It's a product that enables cell phones to use Skype, arguably the world's most popular Internet telephony provider.

But VoIP giants Skype and Edison, N.J.-based Vonage say they also have ambitions to develop software for cell phone access.

"It's an area we're committed to," said Skype spokeswoman Kelly Larabee.

On Monday, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based CallWave will reveal a new wrinkle in its lineup of VoIP-related cell phone services, including a unique call screening feature.