RealTime IT News

EarthLink Offers Free VoIP Calls

Officials at EarthLink rolled out an expansion of its VoIP service for broadband users Tuesday, giving its 1.2 million high-speed users unlimited free calls to other SIP-enabled phones.

EarthLink, one of the three largest ISPs in the nation alongside AOL and MSN , has been offering a $29.99 unlimited VoIP offering since last year, powered by Jersey-based Vonage. The company's commitment to VoIP, however, dates back to September 2001, when it launched a service powered by Dialpad for $9.99 a month.

While free service is fairly limited in scope -- it extends to other SIP-based phones, not over traditional phone lines -- EarthLink is proving IP-based telephony is gaining traction in the industry.

"It shows a continuing move towards ISPs adopting and thinking of voice over IP as another application they offer along with online gaming and streaming video and links to special content," said Daryl Schoolar, a senior analyst at research outfit In-Stat/MDR. "VoIP is entering that evolutionary channel of content -- an application provided by an ISP."

It's another feather in EarthLink's VoIP cap, which has more than a year's head start on AOL and MSN. Rumors have swirled over AOL's IP telephony plans, but the company is being tight-lipped about its deployment plans, saying only that field tests continue.

MSN, on the other hand, will likely depend on the service providers it resells from and its own .NET Voice Services.

According to Jim Bagnato, EarthLink director of value-added services, the ISP is eating some of the cost involved in the free service but feel the payoff is worthwhile.

"There's definitely some level of cost associated with setting up the server infrastructure and maintaining that, however, we view it somewhat as a cost of doing business for our access customers," he said.

While it will certainly please EarthLink's existing customers, it's sure to lure some new ones also, those who might be looking at alternatives to expensive phone bills. According to a July report by market research group Ipsos-Insight, nearly 20 percent of 1,200 polled U.S. Internet users are considering a switch from traditional telephone service to VoIP.

"The cost savings proposition of VoIP will play a major role in drawing new subscribers into trying out Internet-based phone service," Lynne Bartos, Ipsos-Insight senior vice president, said in a statement. "People who spend over $40 a month on their calls are more than twice as likely try to VoIP."

EarthLink has partnered with Free World Dialup and SIPphone.com to increase the appeal of its SIP-based free offering, a part of the company's strategy to expand its overall VoIP portfolio.

"EarthLink Free Online Calling is part of our overall strategy to develop and deploy a full suite of data and voice-based communication applications," said Tom Andrus, vice president of products and services at EarthLink. "With the debut of EarthLink's latest VoIP service, our broadband subscribers can call and talk with friends and family over the Internet for free."

Included in the new package are voicemail access via e-mail, an online calling log, three-way calling and online account management. EarthLink broadband users who want to sign up for the service can do so here. The free online calling service is powered by Xten Network's X-Lite softphone application, which is available for download here.