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Wal-Mart to promote gear for Skype calls

NEW YORK -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is adding an array of Skype phone gear to the electronics section in 1,800 stores, bringing the renegade provider of cheap calling over the Internet to a huge mainstream audience.

The dedicated Skype section will feature handsets, headsets, and webcams designed to work with Skype, a provider of free and very cheap long-distance calls, including to phone numbers abroad. Wal-Mart will also sell the first prepaid cards for Skype calls to be sold in this country.

The new section at more than half of Wal-Mart's roughly 3,300 US stores will feature Skype-compatible gear made by Motorola Inc., Plantronics Inc., Logitech International SA, Royal Philips Electronics NV, and others.

Those manufacturers already sell those products in stores through their relationships with Best Buy Co. and Circuit City Stores Inc., but Wal-Mart will be the first to offer a wide selection in one place.

Wal-Mart also sells products that work with Vonage, which also transmits calls over an Internet connection but tends to more closely replicate the experience of using a traditional telephone. By contrast, while there are a growing number of cordless phones compatible with Skype, the service is commonly used by plugging a headset into a computer and clicking on names in a buddy list.

With tens of millions of regular users, Skype has developed a huge following, especially among international callers. But the service is not as well known to the general public, even among people with high-speed Internet connections.

"We think there will be a lot of Wal-Mart shoppers who will not be familiar with Skype," said Don Albert, general manager for Skype North America, a unit of eBay Inc.

"We have worked with Wal-Mart to describe Skype simply in the display," Albert said, noting that the products may vary from store to store, depending on the market. "In more tech-savvy areas, you may see higher-end Skype certified hardware."

Wal-Mart typically rolls out new products in 1,000 to 2,000 stores, and the 1,800 featuring Skype products will be evenly spread across the nation, said Melissa O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the retailer.