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Vonage CEO Citron Surveys The Emerging VoIP Scene

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Vonage CEO Citron Surveys The Emerging Voip Scene

December 14, 2004

By Staff

The most disruptive broadband-based technology to grab the headlines this past year has been, arguably, the onslaught of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Basic Voip technology actually has been with us for almost two decades but, until this year, it was a techie or, at best, an early-adopter sort of thing. During the past 12 months, that's changed radically and, by all estimates, Voip usage will pass the magic million- subscriber mark sometime early in 2005.

As 2004 draws to a close, Vonage remains the market leader in North America, and it will end the year with somewhat more than 300,000 subscribers.

Cablevision has grabbed the Number Two spot with about 250,000 subscribers, and Time Warner is Number Three with roughly 200,000. Level3, which wholesales Voip
services to 100 or so competitors, is believed to be sitting in the fourth spot.

New competitors are on the horizon: Comcast, all of the regional holding companies and AT&T, to name some of the most potent.

Vonage CEO Jeffrey Citron took some time out of his calendar to sit down with Broadband Business Forecast and discuss how his company is holding up against the growing competition and to give us his views on some of the most pressing issues involved with the rollout of VoIP.

BBF: Considering all the powerful new entrants in VoIP, including local exchange carriers and cable companies, is Vonage's business being hurt?

Citron: A year ago today, we were been pretty much alone. We have a very good competitive environment today. We're competing against the RBOCs, we're competing against the cable guys, and we're doing well. We are surviving and doing quite well. I think people misunderstand the market. They look at it and get very confused.

With all the players coming to the market, what's happened is the awareness of the service is going up. There's a good chance we'll add more customers in the fourth quarter than any other provider. There's a good chance we'll add more customers than the bottom 300 providers combined. People trust that we're going to be around.

BBF: New facilities-based entrants, in particular, argue that a company such as Vonage can't provide as high a level of quality of service as they can,because they control the QoS on their networks. How do you counter that?

Citron: The people who raise the question of quality of service...when they can't compete on price, what's the first thing they go to? Quality of service. The quality's out there, and it's only getting better. We have leased capacity on five managed backbones, 33 points of presence. I think the quality of the calls are doing well and, as the quality of broadband networks get better, the quality (of VoIP) is only going to get better.

BBF: Are free Voip services like Skype and the voice capabilities of instant messagers hurting Vonage's business?

Citron: Skype? It doesn't cut into my revenues; it cuts into public switched telephone network (PSTN) revenues. Not only is it free, it's incredible inconvenient to use.

For most people, for the 5 cents a minute (that Voip providers charge for long distance), they probably won't go through the hassle of setting up Skype.

For $30, $40 or $50 a month, yes, they will. It hurts the telcos that charge a big premium for international calling.

BBF: Where is the money going to come from to pay for such things as the cost of 911 services for Voip users?

Citron: We have a regulatory fee of $1.50 (to cover such costs).

BBF: But what about all the other taxes and fees?

Citron: We think the days of people billing exorbitant fees to telecom users are over. Half of the fees are actually kept by the RBOCs; they're not taxes. The rest are taxes based on billing amounts. State governments can no longer rely on that tax stream, because the revenue that Voip providers charge is less.

BBF: How soon do you think we'll see Vonage offering WiFi phones for its service?

Citron: We're very hopeful that the phones will be ready maybe in another quarter or so. They should have been ready this quarter.

BBF: Are government demands that Voip companies comply with CALEA a problem?

Citron: We are basically CALEA-compliant now. We just haven't put into place all the automation.

BBF: What about 911 services? Vonage recently launched its first 911 service in Rhode Island, but what about the rest of the country?

Citron: 911 is not a regulated industry. There are no rules (that would force 911 operators to allow Voip carriers access to the 911 system). Because we're not a telecommunications carrier, we don't have a connection, right? The hardest problem is getting access.

Rhode Island owned its own system. In most states, RBOCs own the system. They see it as a competitive advantage. [Editor's note: Citron went on to repeat, as previously reported, that Vonage plans to announce 911 services in several more states early next year.]

BBF: Various people in the industry - competitors and analysts - are saying Vonage's game plan and exit strategy is to build up a large enough subscriber base to get itself acquired at a handsome price by a competitor.

Citron: You're talking to people who are telling you good lies. I can tell you definitively that we have very-long-term plans. If you want good competition and lower telecom prices, you're going to get it.

BBF's Take On The Situation

As we've said, before we expect VoIP, at some point in the future, to become the dominant protocol in use to deliver telephony services. It's not going to happen overnight - a decade or more is a better guess - but the past year has seen the beginnings of a fundamental change in the telecom industry.

It also bears repeating that we don't think Voip is going to drive the broadband revolution. The technology simply doesn't demand enough bandwidth to do that. Rather, it's the broadband revolution that has made Voip suddenly attractive. Voip quickly is becoming a "must have" service for broadband providers to complement the real bandwidth hogs - IP video, real-time gaming and medical imaging, to name just a few - that are driving the industry to deliver
ever greater bandwidth to end users.

As for Vonage's long-term chances, the company today has the highest profile in VoIP, but it is going to have to be fast on its feet and very creative to maintain its position in competition with the flood of other big name players entering the business - particularly such players as the cable companies that can offer a triple play of services that Vonage can't. Then, too, there's the growing horde of no-name players with seemingly endless creativity in crafting unusual pricing and packages in an attempt to carve off a little piece of the market for themselves. Each customer they do get is one less for Vonage or one of the other major Voip providers.

The bottom line is that we think Vonage's best ultimate play in the market is a strong program to partner with everyone and anyone that's trying to sell a triple-play service. In such a scenario, Vonage would, of course, be the voice carrier in that service. The few triple-play packages we've seen so far are priced so that it's insane for a consumer to buy video and broadband a la carte and leave out voice - the combined price of video and broadband a la carte often is more than a full triple-play bundle. That means Vonage should be making a strong play in such places as municipally owned broadband systems, where the ILECs and cable companies aren't players. We asked Citron about that, and we didn't hear an answer that reflected a finished business plan.

We'll be interested, in a year's time, to see how Vonage has survived what's sure to be a turbulent 2005 in the Voip business. Citron is, of course, optimistic. That's his job as CEO of the company.

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