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Covad, EarthLink To Provide Hybrid VoIP, Broadband Service

By Keith Regan
Jun 6, 2005 10:53 AM PT

Hoping to use a hybrid technology to provide fast-growing Internet calling services to customers, Covad and EarthLink today said they would begin testing a service that uses existing phone lines to provide high-speed Web access and voice over Internet protocol calling services.

Covad, EarthLink To Provide Hybrid VoIP, Broadband Service

The technology uses Covad's Line Powered Voice Access (LPVA) technology to use existing copper voice lines to transmit calls to a Covad data center. There, it is converted into digital form, becoming VoIP traffic that travels across high-speed data networks managed by Covad.

The companies are billing the service as an improvement over existing options by providing the low cost of VoIP while adding the stability and reliability of traditional wire-line telephone service. For instance, the service will work in power or Web access outages, which knock out high-speed access services that rely on a modem, including some DSL services and cable Internet. The service will also work with enhanced-911 emergency services.

Bundle of Services

Customers will be able to order a bundle of services that includes local and long distance phone service and high-speed Internet access, all using existing phone lines that Covad leases from local phone providers.

San Jose, Calif.-based Covad said testing for the service will begin this fall in its home city as well as Seattle and Dallas. Widespread availability is not expected until the end of the year or early 2006. The two companies said the test will be funded by EarthLink through a pre-payment for future use of Covad's network. EarthLink will also handle sales and marketing for the joint effort.

Andrew Lockwood, Covad executive vice president-strategic development, said the technology "opens up a major new market opportunity for Covad and EarthLink. Together we have created a compelling service which we believe will be very attractive to a large number of customers."

Best of Both Worlds?

"Our customers are looking to us for an expanded portfolio of low-cost, high quality voice and data products," said Steve Howe, EarthLink's vice president of voice services. "Partnering with Covad on a market trial of this scale builds upon our existing voice strategy and better positions us to deliver an exciting package of voice and data services."

The service is made possible through the Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM) technology Covad employs to provide broadband-speed Internet access across the existing so-called "last mile" of copper wires, which is still the dominant connection to the public communications infrastructure for millions of homes across the U.S.

The service might appeal to consumers, analysts say, because it combines the touch and feel of traditional phone service, and because of its reliability, with the ability to get low-cost calling plans that VoIP offers. For instance, VoIP calls could be placed from any existing land line in a home, not just computer-connected phones.

It also could enable the companies to target households that are not already on broadband connections and who are therefore not able to access the rapidly growing menu of VoIP offerings from the likes of Comcast, AOL, Skype and Vonage, to name just a few of the companies targeting the market.

Comfort Level

Analysts said if effective, the technology could help overcome some of the perceived shortcomings of existing VoIP offerings, by boosting reliability to be more like land-line phones and by ensuring E-911 access.

"Consumers expect to pick up the telephone and get a dial tone, even if the power is out, and they expect emergency calls to go where they're supposed to," telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan told the E-Commerce Times.

While early adopters have flocked to VoIP in its early form and the arrival of big-name telecoms to the space has helped solidify it as a mainstream option, consumers still have complaints about the technology, with many toe-dipping in VoIP by keeping land lines as backups.

"When people feel comfortable to cut their ties to their existing phone services, that will indicate that VoIP has really arrived," Kagan said.

The price of the service will be an important factor, analysts say, and the companies said they have not yet established what the bundle of Internet access through EarthLink and the voice services will cost. The company indicated it would be competitive to existing VoIP calling plans, however.

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