UK Mobile operator 3 has teamed up with Skype to launch a new 3G internet phone that will let you make free internet calls and send free text messages.

Dubbed the '3 Skypephone', the new device is set to launch this morning at an official 3 press conference.

Free internet calls

"This is the first time," says 3, "that an operator has offered a mass market device which is tailor-made for free calling over the internet from a mobile".

Skype-to-Skype calls will be free from a 3 Skypephone as long as you are on a paid-up contract or have PAYG 3 credit topped up monthly. In the UK, the 3 Skypephone will cost £49.99 on a PAYG tariff. It will be free as a contract option.

Other than its Skype capability, the new Skypehone hasn't got a specification that will wow the crowds. It's designed to be cheap, so it's hardly an iPhone rival. The technical highlights are a 2MP camera, Bluetooth connectivity and a MicroSD slot (so you can boost the 16MB of internal memory up to 1GB).

The Skypephone has been co-developed by Skype and 3 in partnership with Qualcomm. The handset uses Qualcomm's BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) platform to enable Skype to integrate with basic handset features such as your address book and instant messaging.

Mass market appeal

"Skype is now truly mobile," said Michael van Swaaij, acting CEO at Skype. "This new handset is incredibly easy to use and lets you make free mobile Skype calls when you are on the move to other Skype users all over the world no matter where they are.

"Skype began by offering free PC to PC calling," Swaaij added, "and now we're doing the same with mobile calls with 3. Thanks to 3, Skype has now taken a giant step forward in the mobile arena. It takes an innovative operator like 3 to challenge traditional thinking and offer the kind of product other operators are still shying away from".

By "challenging traditional thinking", 3 is suggesting that it's threatening existing GSM calls with its new phone. But this isn't necessarily the case. While the Skypephone enables Skype-to-Skype calling, there seems to be no support for the SkypeOut functonality available to PC Skype users.

In short: Skypephone owners can call other Skype users, not landline or mobile numbers.

The 3 Skypephone will be on sale from 2 November in 3 stores across the UK and from Skype itself. The 3 Skypephone is available for pre-order in the UK from today. We'll have more on this story after the official launch of the phone tonight.