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UK operator 3 is to allow Skype users to make international calls with their SkypeOut minutes, bypassing the operator completely, while the VoIP pioneer's desktop client continues its slow progress towards version 4 with a new beta release.

Punters equipped with a Skypephone, or compatible handset such as an N95 or C902 on 3, are already able to call up other Skype users for free. But from today they'll also be able to make international calls using the Skype network with the rate being deduced from their SkypeOut minutes.

The customer will be able to choose if a call should be handled by Skype or the traditional 3 network, and will pay appropriate rates. Chief Executive at 3 Kevin Russell said: "Although 3 customers enjoy the best value international calling tariffs in the UK, we know that people are apprehensive about using their mobiles to call internationally, especially as international minutes aren’t typically included in mobile calling bundles."

Skype is having a good week, with a new beta of its desktop client including system-tray alerts and drag-and-drop file transfer, as well as automatic grouping of contacts for those who have too many friends to manage manually. Skype are bucking a trend by releasing a beta, gathering feedback, and then releasing an improved beta while working towards a final version - not very Web 2.0 at all really, much more like a telecommunications company.

While Skype users on 3 won't be able to make calls to UK numbers using their SkypeOut minutes - at least not yet - the deal is still significant. One can only imagine 3 has established that not many Skypephone users are making international calls, otherwise the loss of revenue would be hard to justify.

The deal is particularly interesting as 3 uses a normal GSM voice circuit to connect Skype calls, which then pass through a gateway at 3's offices - so calls made using Skype might be free to the punter, but to 3's network they are indistinguishable from normal voice calls.

When the calls were only to other Skype users then it wasn't really a problem, but allowing Skype to collect revenue from 3 customers is a significant risk - and could see 3 reduced to the status of an internet service provider. That would be something of a come-down for a company that once billed itself as being in the "mobile media" business. ®

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