Skype is set to introduce an audioconferencing service that will allow for conferences with as many as 500 callers.

The popular VoIP service currently allows only five users on a call at one time, but that will expand when Highspeedconferencing.com gets certified as a Skype service, expected in the next few weeks, according to Skype. When that happens, and the service emerges from beta testing, it will become available through Skype's home page or the Skype Store site.

Highspeedconferencing.com is a service operated by Vapps, a vendor of audioconferencing equipment in New Jersey. It operates on the Vapps CB1000 conferencing platform, already in use by customers including Amazon, which uses it for internal conference calling, according to Ben Lilienthal, chief executive officer of Vapps. Skype, which operates a peer-to-peer voice calling service, was acquired last year by eBay.

The audioconferencing service will offer a cheaper alternative to conventional conference call services, Lilienthal said. The company's initial target market is home offices and small businesses, but it expects enterprise users eventually to adopt the service. Highspeedconferencing.com is currently available free in beta form but should emerge from beta testing in about two weeks, he said.

The standard service, called High Speed, will cost US$0.035 per minute and will let hosts use a phone keypad to control volume, muting, announcing of participants and locking out of additional callers, Lilienthal said. A premium service, High Speed Plus, will cost $0.06 per minute and will make all those controls available via a web interface. High Speed Plus will also include the ability to record a conference call and make it available later via call-in, .wav file download or AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) podcast, Lilienthal said. Users of High Speed Plus also will get their own lifetime Skype conferencing number so they don't have to get a new identification number for each conference call they set up.

Skype users who call in to the Highspeedconferencing.com sessions will be charged through their Skype credit accounts, Lilienthal said. Although the service is intended primarily for Skype customers, it will allow other participants to call in or initiate High Speed conference calls free from any conventional phone. However, there are only two numbers for them to call today: a local US number in Ohio and a premium-charge number in the UK. Highspeedconferencing.com may set up call-in numbers in other countries in the future, Lilienthal said. Alternatively, a Skype user could call out to the participant's landline or cell phone via the SkypeOut service and bring them in to the conference.

Sound quality is similar to that of a typical Skype call, Lilienthal said.