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SEOUL — The decision to block South Korea-based U.S. military community members from making phone calls via the Internet has been put on hold.

The South Korean Ministry of Information and Communications and Dacom, the Internet service provider that serves about 12,000 base customers, agreed late Thursday to a U.S. Forces Korea request to suspend Saturday’s deadline to begin blocking the service.

Dacom and the two other major ISPs, Korea Telecom and Hanaro, want to ban U.S.-based voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, companies that are not in compliance with the country’s Telecommunications Business Act.

South Korea agreed to “suspend their decision to block these services pending the results of further discussions with USFK,” according to a military news statement released late Friday.

USFK commander Gen. B.B. Bell “expressed his appreciation for the suspension and noted his desire to seek a solution that does not disadvantage U.S. servicemembers and families serving far from home,” according to the release. USFK said it will keep people informed of developments.

The issue came to light Thursday when base Internet customers received notices stating they would no longer be able to use some of the most popular VoIP companies, including Vonage, AT&T CallVantage and Lingo.

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service contracts on-base Internet service through a company called SSRT, which in turn buys its Internet time from Dacom.

SSRT had halted three previous attempts to block VoIP service since Dacom officials first raised the issue in November, SSRT spokeswoman Sara Kim said.

Kim couldn’t provide statistics on how many customers use VoIP, but soldiers who talked to Stars and Stripes said it’s a very popular way for them and others they know to call families left behind in the States.

Each service is different, but generally the companies allow people to make unlimited calls to the States for a package price.

Chief Warrant Officer Micheal Favor said he pays Lingo $22 a month for unlimited calls and people in the States are charged local rates when they call him.

Warrant Officer Victor Mooney said Friday that with only two months left in his South Korea assignment, it’s not that big of a deal for him.

But he worries about the younger troops because the service is “their lifeline during the year.”

SSRT has told customers that if the block were to go into effect, the only option would be to use authorized South Korean VoIP companies: Hanaro, Dacom, Onse, Korea Telecom or Anyusernet.

Mooney and Favor contend the South Korean companies are monopolizing the service and say they wouldn’t use a more expensive product.

Korea Telecom officials say they don’t offer a set monthly rate or any unlimited calling specials.

Instead, customers using their VoIP to call America would pay the same rate, about 13 cents a minute, as they would using a normal home phone.

And calls from the States to customers here would be billed at normal international long-distance rates.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.

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