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Internet Telephones Threat To Telcos

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New Tech Threat To Telcos
Internet Telephones: BCE, Telus Wary Of Consumer Shift To Upstarts' Systems

September 18, 2004

By Kevin Restivo

Andy Church is part of a new breed of phone users. The 39-year-old Ottawa resident happily makes calls from his home computer using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, which allows him to route calls through his computer and avoid paying bills to Canada's largest phone companies.

"I wasn't getting any value for the $50 a month I was paying Bell [for local phone service]," said Mr. Church, a self-described technology enthusiast who eight months ago swapped his Bell Canada service for Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc.'s TalkBroadband service.

Mr. Church, who pays about $60 a month with Primus, said the allure of 10 calling features and unlimited local and long-distance calls made the decision to cut his Bell service an easy choice.

He is one of about 15,000 Canadians who have switched to Voip services, or Internet telephony, according to the Seaboard Group research firm. Upstarts such as Primus sell it for less than the traditional phone lines offered by incumbents Bell Canada or Telus Inc., the two largest telcos in Canada.

Internet telephony moves voice calls over networks much like e-mails or Web page data are transmitted over computers. Users need only a computer with Internet access, a microphone or handset and the appropriate software.

Internet phone service typically costs $14.95 to $19.95 a month from a range of providers with names such as Vonage Holdings Corp. and Call-Net Enterprises Inc. By comparison, Bell's traditional service costs consumers $40 to $60 a month.

The rise of Voip threatens the stranglehold held by BCE Inc., Bell Canada's parent, on Canada's residential and business phone lines.

"They're in trouble and they know it," said Brian Sharwood, an analyst with the Seaboard Group in Toronto. "It's not hyperbole to say Internet telephony is the biggest threat Bell has ever faced."

That's because local phone sales are still Bell Canada's main business. Voip converts like Mr. Church mean lost revenue for Bell, compounding a growing problem for the Montreal-based company. Local phone sales have been falling for several quarters at Bell and Telus, which have been forced to rely on their fast-growing wireless units to prop up financial results.

Plummeting Internet phone prices only compound Bell's problems. Prices are dropping as entrants try to differentiate themselves in the fast-growing, but increasingly crowded, Internet phone service market. Market researcher Frost & Sullivan predicts sales of residential Voip services in the United States and Canada will grow to $700-million in 2007 from $9-million last year.

Some Voip players operating in Canada are ready to expand by dropping already-low prices by as much as 80%, down to about $3 a month, to attract customers, according to a recent Seaboard Group report, making Internet phone service even more attractive to consumers.

"The [profit] margins are insanely good for these guys," Mr. Sharwood said .

Bell's competition will only intensify next year when the cable companies, hungry for a slice of Canada's $33-billion telecom market, launch Internet telephony. Rogers Communications Inc., the country's largest cable operator, is expected to launch its Voip plan by mid-2005.

Liz Angus, an executive vice-president with Angus Telemanagement Group Inc., said telcos are most worried about the cable companies, which already have hundreds of thousands of customers and an army of salespeople ready to attack Bell.

The trend has not escaped Bell and Telus. Michael Sabia, BCE Inc.'s chief executive, has said all telecommunications services will use Internet protocol by 2007. Bell has been busy conducting trials of Internet telephone services.

But the phone giants will not launch Voip services until the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission revamps its rules.

"We wouldn't be trying to get in the game if we didn't feel this was going to be the wave of the future," said Lawson Hunter, an executive vice-president with BCE. "But we need to know the rules first."

Bell and Telus are worried the commission will allow new competitors to operate freely while imposing regulations on the incumbents, as CRTC commissioner Charles Dalfen suggested may happen back in April.

Ken Engelhart, Rogers' vice-president, regulatory, believes the CRTC's preliminary view that Internet telephony should be regulated like local phone service is correct.

"I'm very worried about the ability of an incumbent ... to kill this brave new world before it even starts," he said. "That's why the CRTC should keep [the incumbents] regulated."

Otherwise, Bell would charge artificially low prices and bundle Internet access with Voip services, two "anti-competitive tricks" that would allow the phone giant to unfairly transfer its No. 1 status to the world of Internet telephony, Mr. Engelhart added.

"This would give them a sinister level of control over the market," he said. "Letting an incumbent monopoly operate [without restrictions] spells trouble for the emerging market."

The commission is expected to soon create new rules for Internet telephony. On Tuesday, the federal regulator will kick off hearings into how it should regulate Voip calls that travel through the international telephone system based on copper wires that carry analog voice data. Bell and Telus are waiting for a decision from the commission, which is expected early next year, before they announce residential Voip phone service plans.

"If companies like Vonage or Primus aren't regulated, why should we be?" said Janet Yale, Telus executive vice-president of government and regulatory affairs.

Regulators are finding making rules for Voip services is a difficult task. Such companies as Edison, N.J.-based Vonage, which do not have facilities in Canada, have been able to offer Internet phone service outside the commission's scope.

Voip also erases the distinction between local and long-distance calls as Canadian Voip providers can assign customers numbers from any area code in the country.

U.S. regulators have not decided what to do with VoIP, either. South of the border, the states and the federal government are wrestling over what regulatory body will set the rules for VoIP.

Jeff Pulver, the founder of a free Voip service called Free World Dialup, says the regulator should make Rogers, Bell or other operator give unfettered access to Internet telephony players that want to send voice traffic over their networks.

Eamon Hoey, a partner with Hoey Associates Inc. consultancy, believes Bell and Telus are safe in the long run. "The hearings are a non-starter," he said. "They've already made up their minds." He said the incumbents will find a way around the commission's decision if it does not favour them.

Ms. Angus said some smaller Voip players will lose once the incumbents figure out how to profit from Internet phone calls.

The highly touted technology has created a dot com-like feel around a recovering telecom industry, which has been thirsting for good news after a prolonged slump. But the business case for Voip technology is far from proven, observers say. Implementing Voip technology could cost billions and the largest carriers have not said how they will make money.

With awareness low and business plans up in the air, Internet telephony providers are not expecting huge growth. Bill Linton, chief executive of Call-Net Enterprises Inc., which operates under the Sprint Canada brand name, expects 5% of Canadian households to use Internet telephony within two years, mostly single apartment dwellers and families that want a second line.

Bell, for its part, looks like it wants to sell Voip service as a secondary line. Bell, which maintains a near-monopoly in the local phone game, released company-sponsored research that indicated more than half (56%) of Canadians would subscribe to both a residential phone line and a Voip service.

But Bell and other potential suppliers may find prospective customers are turned off by Internet telephony's drawbacks. Unlike traditional phone calls, made using older circuit-switch technology, Internet phone service can be disrupted by a power outage. Most Voip service providers also do not offer 911 emergency service.

Mr. Church, the Primus customer who is also a vice-president of sales and marketing with an Ottawa tech firm, does not regret the switch, as he is saving $65 a month on phone services. But Mr. Church said Internet telephony is not for everybody.

"I think it would be a stretch to say your grandmother could do it," he said. "There's a level of comfort you have to have with putting an ethernet cable into a network. These things mature and evolve, but you have to have some level of familiarity."

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