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Vonage Aims To Stay On Its Growth Path With New Equipment

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Vonage Aims To Stay On Its Growth Path With New Equipment

January 4, 2005

By Reinhardt Krause

When Vonage Holdings unveils new gear at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, the company should have something to crow about.

The Edison, N.J.-based startup, which sells phone service via the Internet, says it's nearing 400,000 subscribers. Not bad for a company that had just 85,000 users at the end of 2003.

Even so, 2005 could be a challenging year for Vonage. Cable TV firms and others are rolling out their own online phone services, which rely on a technology called VoIP, or voice over Internet protocol.

With Voip competition growing, Vonage looks to woo consumers with snazzy new equipment. At the show, Vonage and partners will demonstrate a new videophone, a Wi-Fi phone that whisks voice calls along wireless Internet networks, and a new cordless phone with built-in Voip adapter.

All three products should be available in early 2005, says Vonage Chief Executive Jeffrey Citron.

"Our thrust for at least the first half of 2005 is continuing to bring a large array of products to market that work with Vonage's service," he said.

Vonage's Voip rivals also are racking up subscribers — though they trail Vonage for now.

Cablevision Systems ended 2004 with an estimated 270,000 Voip customers, while Time Warner Cable expects to top 200,000.

The nation's biggest cable firm, Comcast, is expected to ramp up its Voip services in 2005. It's possible some cable firms could overtake Vonage in subscriber count this year, analysts say.

All Voip products work over high-speed Internet connections — mainly cable modems or the digital subscriber lines used by phone companies.

Vonage is at a disadvantage, some analysts say, because it can't package speedy Internet access with Voip services the way cable firms are doing. Vonage customers have to bring their own Internet connection.

Vonage cut the price of its Voip service from $40 to $24.99 over the past two years. Cable firms, meanwhile, typically offer product bundles. Cablevision sells Internet access, Voip and pay TV for $90 monthly.

Making The Pitch

Marketing could be a big factor. Vonage hasn't disclosed its advertising budget. Whether it can match the marketing prowess of cable TV firms is unclear, analysts say.

Vonage has raised more than $208 million from investors, including some $70 million from Citron himself. It announced a $105 million financing round in August.

"Vonage today — and has for some time — generates free cash flow prior to the money we spend on marketing," he said. "Part of our marketing expense is funded by our current customer base, and the rest is funded by the capital we've raised."

Citron adds that Vonage hasn't touched "one penny" of the $105 million raised in August. "It's still in the bank," he said.

Vonage, though, is taking on more challenges.

It aims to launch a Voip service in the U.K. in mid-January. Vonage plans a marketing blitz to take on BT Group and others in that country.

The U.K. has about 5.1 million broadband connections, says research firm Point Topic. That compares with 31.7 million in the U.S.

The biggest provider of Voip services in the world is Japan's Yahoo Broadband service. It's sold by conglomerate Softbank and Yahoo's Japanese unit. Point Topic says the service had more than 4.3 million registered Voip users as of mid-November.

In the U.K., BT Group offers a Yahoo-branded DSL service. As part of that effort, BT Group and Yahoo launched a Voip product in mid-2004 that uses Yahoo's instant messaging software. BT and Yahoo are expected to add video calls to the instant messaging product in 2005.

'Different Market'

BT Group, though, hasn't announced a service similar to Vonage's. In the U.S., Vonage sells unlimited calls for $24.99.

"The U.K. is a totally different market," Citron said. "But we're coming in very aggressive."

Vonage is aiming for 1 million customers by the end of 2005, including the U.S. and the U.K.

Early Voip products were plagued with service problems. But Vonage has funneled money into improving customer service and it's paid off, says Citron.

Roughly two-thirds of its employees work in the customer service unit.

About 2% of Vonage's customers disconnect Voip service monthly. That equates to a turnover rate of almost 25% annually. That may not sound great, but it's much better than those of most mobile phone companies, Citron says.

Vonage's new Voip gadgets, though, could strain the customer service department if technical glitches crop up.

New Videophone

At CES, Vonage will strut out a videophone manufactured by the startup Viseon. The videophone features digital signal processors from chipmaker Texas Instruments. Texas Instruments announced a technology pact with Vonage in early 2004.

The videophone should be available to consumers by April, Citron says. Cautious about building up expectations, he declined to disclose the price.

"The three problems with videophones have been that they've been very expensive, quality hasn't been very good, and they needed a lot of bandwidth," Citron said. "With Viseon, we've been able to conquer those issues. But, we just don't know about (demand)."

VTech Holdings, with chips from Texas Instruments, will debut a new cordless phone for Vonage's service. That phone is expected to ship in early 2005.

UTStarcom's Wi-Fi phone, meanwhile, is expected to be available by mid-2005.

Users will be able to log on to Vonage's service from Wi-Fi hot spots, typically found in airports, hotels and shopping malls.

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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See for details.

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