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Vonage Unfazed By BT Internet Telephony Push

Vonage In Print News

December 11, 2003

By Taska Manzaroli

BERLIN (Dow Jones)--Vonage, the U.S. telecoms upstart that's shaking the industry's incumbents with its voice-over-Internet technology, isn't deterred from expanding in Europe by the sudden emergence of competition from BT Group PLC (BTY).

BT's move earlier this week, described by consultants Ovum as "startlingly proactive," came as a surprise to many. But Vonage isn't discouraged and could even profit from the growing awareness of the technology sparked by BT's service, Vonage Chief Executive Jeffrey Citron said in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires.

Vonage, which has signed up 80,000 customers for cheap calls over the Internet since its creation in 2001, is kicking off expansion outside the U.S. with Canada in December. Europe is on the agenda for the first half of next year, with the U.K. and Switzerland potential entry points, Citron said.

Internet telephony is a menace for the likes of BT, Deutsche Telekom AG(DT), Royal KPN NV (KPN) and Swisscom AG (SCM). If exploited by rivals, the technology has the potential to inflict more revenue losses on their main
fixed-line businesses, analysts say. Incumbents take the threat seriously.

BT this week said it will launch a service that allows consumers that use cable firms for high-speed Internet access to make calls with BT by plugging a box into their cable link. The offering is very similar to Vonage's.

"It's a serious compliment," Citron said.

BT's marketing of a product is beneficial for Vonage as "they'll prime the market" and educate people on Internet telephony, he said, which "makes that problem go away."

Vonage could differentiate itself with more attractive services. It could also work with the British operator, for instance in providing local umbers for BT in the U.S., he said. He added Vonage has held talks with hone companies in the U.K., without specifying which ones.

Still, analysts say BT's move could make it more difficult for Vonage. The choice of cable subscribers as the focus market "appears to confront Vonage directly in the segment of the market where it has traditionally met with greatest success," Daiwa Securities analyst James Enck said in an

Voice over Internet protocol, or VOIP, converts a voice signal to data and sends it via the net. Users can plug their phone into a computer anywhere in the world, keeping the same number. Vonage exploits the technology to sell various packages in the U.S., including unlimited calls
anywhere in North America for a flat rate of $34.99 a month.

Expansion to Europe is a logical step, as each month, about 10% of Vonage's 50 million minutes of outbound calls are to international destinations, with Europe in the top spot, Citron said.

The privately-held company has allotted some of the $35 million from a recent fund-raising for the European thrust, though Citron wouldn't say how much. Europe is "very fertile ground - we see a number of Vonage-like
players emerging," he said.

Switzerland is a potential target because it's a financial center and there's plenty of cross-border communications traffic.

Vonage sees benefits from connecting Switzerland, London, New York, Toronto and California. There's demand in the U.S. for a Swiss phone number, while for a Swiss multinational operating in the U.S., it's "equally
attractive," Citron said.

In the U.S., Vonage markets its service directly as well as through retailers like Inc. (AMZN) and RadioShack Corp. (RSH). It also partners cable operators like CableAmerica and Armstrong, offering services
to their broadband Internet subscribers.

The Edison, New Jersey-based company aims to work with partners in Europe that already have a customer base, such as cable operators, high-speed Internet providers or incumbents.

UGC Europe Inc. (UGCE), the cable operator controlled by Liberty Media Corp. (LMCB), has "great assets," Citron noted. Vonage's retailing deal with Amazon in the U.S., is "easily extendable to Europe," he added.

"Our preferred entry is through a partnership, but if we can't, we've earmarked funds to build retail distribution," Citron said. The company could market its brand on Internet portals like Yahoo! Inc.'s (YHOO), as it does in the U.S.
Citron sees the main hurdle as the negotiation of contracts with telecoms carriers. In the U.S., the company has contracts with more than 20 carriers, and it will need to conclude another 10 to 15 to cover Europe,Citron said.

It takes three to six months to get a carrier relationship in place, so "time is the biggest barrier," he said.

"For those carriers that wish to partner with Vonage, it'll be a very worthwhile experience," Citron said. Those that don't "may find themselves losing business to us," he said.

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