Skype close to launching global Net call service

Skype Technologies, which offers software that allows users to make free phone calls over the Internet, said Friday that it is closer to launching a new prepay service in which users can make cheap calls to any phone around the world from their PCs.

The Luxembourg-based Internet telephony company announced deals with four carriers to route calls for the upcoming service on Friday, saying that the agreements will speed the company toward launching the global service dubbed SkypeOut.

Skype, which was founded by the creators of the Kazaa peer-to-peer (P-to-P) file-sharing software, currently offers software that gives users the ability to call other Skype users around the world for free using P-to-P technology. Over 7.5 million people are now using the service, according to a Skype spokeswoman, and the software is available in 20 languages.

The forthcoming SkypeOut differs from the company's current offering because users will not be limited to calling just other Skype users. The prepay service will allow users to call any fixed-line or mobile phone around the world from their PCs. The calls travel over the Internet, like traditional voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), and then hit the public telephone system at their destination, the spokeswoman said.

Agreements with the carriers announced Friday are for providing routing and termination of the calls on the public telephone network. The agreements were made with pan-European carrier COLT Telecom Group, Teleglobe International Holdings, and U.S.-based companies iBasis and Level 3 Communications.

Because the calls travel mainly over the Internet, the cost of the service will be very low, the spokeswoman said. She could not say exactly how much the calls would cost, but said that the company plans to offer "extremely competitive rates."

"Basically, you'll be able to make international calls at local rates," she said, adding that the service is expected to launch "within coming weeks."

SkypeOut users will be able to download the software, manage and add credit to their accounts from the company's Web site, she said.

The service is best over broadband connections, although dial-up customers can still use it. Sound quality over broadband is markedly better, "like CD quality sound," the spokeswoman said.

Skype was founded in August 2003 and has already managed to help shake up the telecom market by putting more pressure on carriers to jump into the VOIP game. Operators such as AT&T and Qwest Communications International have recently been touting VOIP services and Verizon Communications Inc. just introduced a service Thursday that lets broadband users make unlimited phone calls around the U.S..

Though headquartered in Luxembourg, Skype has an office in London and much of its development work takes place in Tallinn, Estonia.

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