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VoIP On The Verge

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Voip On The Verge

November 19, 2004

By Jon Arnold

With incumbents and new entrants alike capturing residential market share, Voip is on the threshold of something big.

Voip is everywhere these days, and is argu-ably the hottest thing since the tech bubble of 2000. So, right away there should be some cause for concern. Depending on what hat you're wearing, this is true, but it is also an exciting time for anyone close to this market. With low barriers to entry and minimal regulation, Voip is attracting new money and new players. The market will go through its natural - and necessary - cycles of speculation, investment, exits and consolidation, but there is an undeniable sense that Voip is poised to fundamentally alter the telecom landscape.

So, what is happening with VoIP? At the consumer level, broadband telephony is redefining voice communications, and the benefits of IP are going mainstream. Voip has had numerous false starts, and has simply moved outward from the network core to the edge and access space, where it becomes real for the end user. IP technology has proven itself effective at reducing network operating costs, and the focus has now shifted to revenue generation via IP services.

Voip is really just a technology, or an application in a data network. Voip is not really an industry; it's an enabling technology that supports something much bigger - IP communications.

Why Now?

The simple answer on the timing of Voip is the "V" word: Vonage. The "Vonage effect" is real, albeit far out of proportion to its impact in taking market share away from the RBOCs. No other virtual operator has come close in demonstrating proof of concept and bringing a consumer-friendly value proposition to market. By doing so, Vonage has had a substantial impact in accelerating the deployment plans of all the Tier 1 service providers.

Underlying that, however, is a more pervasive factor: broadband adoption. There is no Voip market without broadband, and penetration has finally reached a critical mass where a number of offerings can be supported. By year-end, one in four U.S. homes will have broadband, and with the RBOCs finally making a serious push into DSL, the take rate will steadily increase over the next few years. In fact, Voip itself may soon become a driver for getting broadband.

Fig. 1: U.S. residential Voip market.

Just as voice and data are converging at the desktop, Frost & Sullivan sees several other factors converging that makes today such a dynamic environment for VoIP:

It works. This sounds like an obvious statement, but residential Voip did not work well for a long time. Voip has had several false starts since its inception in 1995. Although it is not 100 percent ready for prime time, it is certainly good enough now for mainstream use.

Regulations. So far, the FCC has taken a laissez faire approach to VoIP, which has been critical for early-stage success. Had cellular been regulated in its early days, it may well have not evolved to where it is today. Regulation will come to VoIP, but not likely until it becomes more established.

Competition. This is a crucial driver that was absent in telecom until last year. Rising broadband adoption and the cost efficiencies of IP have led all types of service providers to offer VoIP, and begin competing for customers who previously were the sole domain of incumbent telcos.

End user demand. In the long run, the laws of supply and demand rule, and we are now truly seeing signs of Voip demand from consumers. Voip has been a supply-driven market to date, but as services are rolled out, consumers are quickly recognizing the value proposition of IP services.

Triple play. For the cable operators, Voip completes the triple play, which is their main strategy for taking on the RBOCs. To counter this, the RBOCs are adding video to their triple play, along with voice and high-speed Internet. This sets the stage for the "battle of the bundles," which we expect will determine who wins control of the broadband home.

Wireless substitution. This trend impacts telecom on many levels, but in terms of VoIP, the key issue is the unprecedented decrease in access lines for the RBOCs, which are largely migrating to cellular. With the declines in wireline subscribers and long-distance revenues, RBOCs are under heavy pressure to offset these losses with new services, which brings us to VoIP.

Who Is Leading the Charge?

The United States has seen tremendous activity in 2004, both in terms of Voip subscriber uptake, and the variety of operators coming to market. At this point, five operators have demonstrated notable success in attracting subscribers: Vonage, AT&T, Primus, Cablevision and 8x8. There are several others, of course - some who are in the market now, and others who are very close to entering. However, these five account for the vast majority of residential U.S. Voip subscribers.

Vonage. Clearly the market leader on many fronts, including subscribers, service coverage, mind share, channels, money raised, first mover, etc. Vonage has been able to sustain a healthy growth rate even as new offerings come to market, and is currently in the range of 250,000 subscribers. Vonage's main vendor partner is Cisco for media gateways, and for applications, dynamicsoft (soon to be part of Cisco) is the engine upon which it develops its own features. On the premises side, Vonage has adopted a strategy of supporting multiple ATA vendors, including Motorola and Linksys.

In terms of 911, Vonage has a partial solution, and it also offers 411. Vonage provides LNP (local number portability), which allows subscribers to keep their existing phone number. However, unlike the Tier 1 carriers, Vonage does not operate its own network, and cannot assure end-to-end QoS.

Aside from an aggressive advertising presence, which includes print, radio and Internet, Vonage has developed extensive channel coverage, including RadioShack (over 3,700 locations), Staples (over 1,100 locations), Circuit City, Best Buy and Office Depot. It entered Canada in April, but has done little active marketing yet. Despite this, Vonage appears to be gaining goo d traction, largely due to the absence of any strong Voip competitors in the Canadian market.

AT&T. Although subscriber numbers are not known, CallVantage has firmly established itself as a strong alternative to Vonage since its launch in March. AT&T operates the largest IP network in the United States, and can provide all the requisite features for full primary line replacement - QoS, LNP, 911 and CALEA compliance. Its network is powered by Sonus gateways, and its ATA partner is D-Link. AT&T is rapidly developing channels, and is in over 600 locations, primarily with Best Buy, as well as online with Amazon. For the DSL market, AT&T has partnered with Covad for local access. More than any other Voip provider, AT&T has the brand name; a critical intangible that gives it an edge for long-term growth. Furthermore, of all the Voip operators, AT&T might have the most at stake to succeed in this market.

Primus. Primus' Voip offering, Lingo, was launched in June, and like AT&T, it is entering the market primarily to counter the decline in its core long-distance business. While not as well known as AT&T, Lingo actually has a broader footprint across the United States, although AT&T is quickly expanding its rollouts. Similar to AT&T, Primus operates its own network, and has an edge over virtual operators such as Vonage and 8x8 in terms of QoS. Lingo provides LNP, and currently provides native mode 911 (called ECS). An upgrade variation called V911 is coming, which Primus feels is a better solution for VoIP.

Primus is adopting a price leader approach, with an attractive rate of $19.95, which includes unlimited calling to Western Europe. It operates an extensive global Voip network, which allows it to market Lingo as an international offering. One example of this is the ability for subscribers to choose overseas area codes from 12 major cities, such as London or Tokyo.

Cablevision. Optimum Voice was launched in the Long Island area in September 2003, and since then has far and away been the most successful Voip launch among MSOs. Cablevision's larger rivals - Comcast, TWC, Charter, etc. - have been in trials for some time, but are only just coming to market now, especially Charter. Using the Siemens soft-switch platform and PacketCable standards, Cablevision can deliver end-to-end QoS with E911 support. With an aggressive and attractive $90 bundle for voice, video and high-speed access, Optimum Voice has attracted some 120,000 subscribers. This is an impressive number, not just for its sheer size, but also because it represents roughly a 10-percent penetration among its 1.1 million broadband subscribers.

Aside from the competitive price point, Cablevision is offering to set up Voip for up to five phones in the subscriber's home for free. Consider-ing the prevalence of multi-phone homes, this is a very nice sweetener. Cablevision's $90 bundle is for a 12-month period, and we expect this offer will continue to fuel its strong growth while it is in effect. That said, it remains to be seen if Cablevision can retain these subscribers after 12 months and higher rates kick in. If the growth rate then slows, it could be argued that the company's success is not based on normal market conditions, and that the effectiveness of bundling has not yet been proven. On the other hand, Cablevision's results have been surprisingly good, and may be a harbinger of the success that MSOs will enjoy when the other majors roll out VoIP.

8x8. This is by far the smallest of the group discussed here, but 8x8 is included to illustrate the challenges faced by all virtual broadband operators. Despite being a public company, 8x8 does not disclose its subscriber counts. However, we believe it is maybe one-tenth of what Vonage reports, making it the second-largest operator. The low cost of entry has attracted many virtual operators, and 8x8 competes with several others - namely Voiceglo, VoicePulse and BroadVoice - who can't match what 8x8 has accomplished. These operators are all capable of providing a competitive Voip offering, but are faced with the major challenge of acquiring subscribers on a cost-effective basis. To achieve this, 8x8 has chosen the price-leader approach, and is not out to duplicate Vonage's heavy marketing push to attract subscribers. As such, its growth has been on a more modest level and pace. 8x8 has also tried to keep costs down by developing much of its software and endpoints in-house. As a result, its offering is low priced, but really only suitable for second-line service. It offers E911 as an option at $3 per month, and to provide this, it has partnered with Level 3. Furthermore, it can only provide limited LNP.

Like Vonage, 8x8 has developed several channel partners, including Zones, CSI and Fry's Electronics, but on a smaller scale. Interestingly, 8x8's main point of difference is a videophone offering. This is having some success, but the high price point for video (even after rebates) will keep this from being a mainstream service for some time. 8x8 is arguably the most successful virtual operator after Vonage, but clearly it is difficult, if not impossible for any of them to duplicate what Vonage has done.

The Bigger Picture

Mapping out the broader competitive landscape would require a separate article, and here we can only say that the residential Voip market will become more crowded and more dynamic. Consumers will be the big winners, benefiting both from cheaper telephony and the first wave of innovation that will give them a taste of what multimedia IP communications is all about.

Essentially, there are four basic types of subscriber-based Voip service providers (see Figure 1). In addition, there is a sub-group of wholesalers, who provide platforms that enable others to offer VoIP. The best-known example is probably deltathree, who provides the platform for Verizon's second line variation of its VoiceWing offering. Other wholesalers of note include Net2Phone and Level 3.

That said, each type has a distinct set of strengths and weaknesses, and at this time, there is room in the market for all of them.

How Will the Market Play Out?

In short, as long as the market remains lightly regulated, Voip is on track for healthy growth over the next few years. That said, it is too early to tell how much of this growth will be at the expense of existing POTS lines, as opposed to ex-panding the wireline market through the growth of second lines. Either way, it is clear that the revenue picture for POTS is not bright.

Naked DSL is not widely available, and until that time comes, residential subscribers taking up Voip with their RBOC will inevitably scale back their POTS lines to bare minimum. In markets where POTS is decoupled from broadband (such as with Qwest), we expect to see an increasing rate of dropping POTS as consumers become more comfortable - and confident - with VoIP.

As the major players make their moves into VoIP, the window for start-ups and virtual operators becomes smaller. On the bright side, there is still plenty of room for all types of providers, especially since overall U.S. broadband penetration is fairly low. However, as the majors shift into high gear, facilities-based operators may hold too much of an advantage, and will ultimately control most of the market. Furthermore, as Voip matures, success will driven more by marketing and brand recognition than the underlying technology, which plays into the majors' favor. In that scenario, some of the virtual operators will be acquired or driven out of the market, and others will find a viable niche, probably on a regional basis. Voip is still evolving, and we have not even begun to address the potential of wireless IP, or peer-to-peer offerings such as Skype or Free World Dialup. As such, we expect Voip will support a rich and diverse ecosystem for some time to come.

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