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Dick Notebaert, CEO of US western states telco Qwest pulled a surprise as he addressed an industry c onference this week, announcing that Qwest will take Voice over IP services to the masses.

Nearly all the US local loop suppliers offer varying levels of VoIP to businesses, but this is the first move by a US telco to take the offering to consumers.

There are various, mostly cynical, reasons that might be given for the move and some commentators have speculated that it is entirely to escape connection fees to other US Telcos in what has come to be thought of as a regulation vacuum.

Recent attempts by the FCC in the US to regulate discounted interconnection between carriers have been heavily criticized and have hit various legal obstacles and may take years to come into play.

Companies that offer VoIP could avoid any connection fees for VoIP calls because at the moment they would come under data traffic regulations. Notebaert said it would likely offer VoIP, across its high-speed Internet service, or digital subscriber line (DSL).

Could the move have anything to do with the 2.3 million people that are using VoIP over a standard broadband line already since the release of Skype 10 weeks ago? Well Skype wasn’t mentioned, and neither was a price for the service.

It seems a little tough to actually charge anything, given that residents are already paying for unlimited usage at a given data rate on broadband. If voice travels as data, surely the data line monthly charge should be enough? plus a little extra charge for billing and gatewaying the traffic onto the postal services telephone network.

Qwest may be simply using the service as a spur to shift broadband lines, as an ADSL line will be a minimum requirement. The other telcos look almost certain to follow, but it is unlikely that any of them can offer “free” calls over the internet like Peer-to-peer services such as Skype does.

Notebaert said that no separate phone line would need to be in place for customers to have the service and that would mean that a $50 a month minimum charge might be in line with existing independent VoIP services, such as Vonage, a US specialist. Vonage charges $35 a month for unlimited local and long-distance calls. Many of the local telcos charge $50 a month for an unlimited plan on the regular phone network. The service will initially be offered in Minnesota and if successful, rolled out to neighboring states, said Qwest, but it gave no launch timing or price.

The FCC has begun to tackle the thorny issue of regulating the Internet Protocol, and will hold a public forum on the subject in December and hope to bring in new regulations as soon as it can after that.

The IP protocol is essentially not within the FFC’s remit at present and without that, there could be a huge shift towards it, with the FCC regulating interconnection over switched telephone traffic and yet having no say over IP carried traffic.

© Copyright 2003 Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of events that have happened each week in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here

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