AOL to launch VOIP within a month

America Online Inc. (AOL) within a month will launch a VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service in a bid to bring packet-based calling technology to the mass market, the top executive of the Internet service giant said Tuesday.

The service, called AOL Internet Phone Service, will leverage the “buddy list” used in the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service to show a subscriber whether friends or associates are currently available, said Jonathan Miller, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of AOL, in a keynote address at the Spring VON (Voice on the Net) trade show in San Jose, California. It will be rolled out first to AOL members in limited locations and over time made available to the mass market, Miller said, without providing more details. Pricing will be tiered, and the company will disclose it at a later time, said spokeswoman Anne Bentley.

The entry of AOL would bring one of the biggest companies associated with consumer Internet service into a market that in the past several months has been joined by major providers of DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem services in North America. AOL already has a commercial VOIP service in Canada and has an ongoing trial in the U.S., Miller said AOL research shows consumer awareness and use of VOIP is still low, but he believes that over time, AOL can draw upon its experience in popularizing the Internet for ordinary consumers.

“We intend to come out on the other side with a truly mass market product,” Miller said. As with the company’s Internet service, ease of use will be key. No AOL product should come with instructions, and if it has to have instructions, “There can’t be any more than three things you have to do,” he said.

Customers will be able to use their existing phones through an adapter that links them in to their broadband routers.

With the addition of the VOIP service, the AIM service over time will become a “dashboard” that subscribers can use to move easily between e-mail, instant messaging and voice calls, Miller said.

Miller did not provide many technical details of the upcoming service. Level 3 Communications Inc. will provide infrastructure and regulatory compliance with features such as E911 (Enhanced 911) emergency calling and local number portability, and Sonus Networks Inc. will provide a phone switching platform that will allow AOL to add new features over time, Miller said. He added that AOL will cooperate in product development with Time-Warner Cable, a sister company of AOL under Time Warner Inc., though he did not provide any details. AOL also plans a mobile component to the service, Miller said.

Spring VON continues through Thursday.

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