Microsoft and telecoms provider MCI today announced a multi-year partnership to offer software and services that will allow users to call from a PC to almost any phone in the world.

The move pits the two companies against SkypeOut, the rival service run by Skype.

The Microsoft-MCI VoIP (voice over IP) service, MCI Web Calling for Windows Live Call, will be available as part of the upcoming successor to Microsoft Messenger, called Windows Live Messenger, the two firm said in a statement.

As with SkypeOut, users of the Microsoft-MCI service will pay a fee to make VoIP calls from their PC to phones. Users will have to sign up for a subscription to the service. Users will receive one free hour of calls and will pay rates starting from $0.023 (about £0.013) per minute to phones in the US, Canada, the UK and western Europe during the beta testing period, the statement said.

Final rates for the service will be announced in 2006, it said.

Under terms of the agreement with Microsoft, MCI will handle customer registration, terminating calls, customer support and billing for the service. Users will be able to purchase prepaid calling time from MCI in $5, $10 and $25 (£2.80, £5.70 and £11.40) blocks for the service.

The VoIP service is currently being offered as a beta with subscriptions currently available in the US, the statement said. Microsoft and MCI expect to expand the PC-to-phone calling capabilities to include France, Germany, Spain and the UK in the coming weeks.