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Internet Phone Calls Could Squeeze Prices

Vonage In Print News

Internet Phone Calls Could Squeeze Prices

December 12, 2003

By Rheinhardt Krause

The race to roll out Internet phone services will likely worsen price deflation in an already reeling telecom industry.

AT&T Corp. (T) Thursday stepped up plans to offer local and long-distance phone calls via voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, technology. Ma Bell says it'll offer Voip services in some markets starting in the first quarter of next year.

AT&T announced its plans three days after losing a bid to take part in a Voip product launch planned in 2004 by Time Warner Cable, industry sources say. Time Warner picked MCI and Sprint Corp. (FON) as partners instead.

AT&T joins a fast-growing crowd of Voip service providers. They include cable TV firms, regional Bell phone companies and start-ups such as Vonage Holdings Corp.

Qwest Communications International Inc. rolled out a Voip service in Minneapolis Wednesday.

Telecom firms plan to offer Voip services via cable modems or phone companies' digital subscriber lines. These high-speed pipes provide speedy Internet access as well as extra bandwidth to transmit voice calls.

Company executives and observers expect Voip to further drive down prices for local and long-distance phone services. Industry revenue has already plunged amid fierce price competition sparked by deregulation.

"VoIP is another deflationary factor," said John Hodulik, analyst at UBS Investment Services. "This is going to put substantial pressure on pricing over the next five years, especially for local services."

About 20 million U.S. homes have speedy Internet links. Consumers can use standard phones to make Internet calls by hooking up adapters to broadband pipes.

"People who have data lines will look at Voip as a very viable alternative to get phone service," said David Farber, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It could do well among people who like innovation and who have the energy to install Voip and make it work correctly," added Farber, a former head technologist at the Federal Communications Commission.

Consumers should benefit as prices for phone services decline, analysts say.

"Pricing is going down, down, down," said Robert Atkinson, director of policy research at Columbia University's Institute for Tele-Information.

"VoIP will bring a further commoditization of basic telephony services," he said. "The challenge for the industry is not to be commoditized."

He says telecom firms will try to bundle VoIP-based local and long-distance calls with wireless services or Internet access in order to attract customers.

Many phone companies now sell unlimited local and long-distance calls for $50 to $60 a month. Voip plans offered by Vonage and cable firms undercut those plans by $15 or more.

Vonage recently rolled out a new service plan that offers 500 minutes of calls in the U.S. for $14.99. Atkinson expects VoIP-based unlimited plans to eventually fall to about $20.

AT&T plans to sell Voip calls as part of a product bundle, much like cable TV firms and local Bells.

Berge Ayvazian, analyst at the Yankee Group, sees a big change in the way consumers buy communications services. With bundled plans, they'll no longer pay attention to the price of individual services.

"Once you opt for the bundle, everything else is free, including local, including long-distance," he said. "You won't be able to find the price of Voip services as part of the bundle. That's the end game in commoditization. What used to be charged for by the minute, or was usage-based, is now embedded."

Net Access Prices

What's worrisome to phone and cable companies alike is that prices are falling for Internet access, the key to bundling strategies.

Cable firms view Voip add-on services as a way to stabilize prices for high-speed Net access, says Adam Quinton, analyst at Merrill Lynch.

Cablevision Systems Corp. (CVC) rolled out Voip services in the New York City area this fall. Cox Communications, (COX) Comcast Corp. (CMCSK) and other cable firms are readying Voip products as well.

Technology that provides Internet calling has steadily improved, although voice quality still doesn't match that of conventional phone service.

In the late 1990s, tech-savvy personal computer users first used Voip software to make international calls.

Consumers can now use standard phones to make Internet calls. Those calls are routed over the public Internet or private IP networks and, increasingly, the public phone network.

Internet-type networks send voice and data in digital packets, unlike traditional circuit-switched networks.

Because Voip calls travel over broadband pipes, costs are lower for service providers. But prices fall too.

"All this means one thing: price deflation — good for consumers but not good for voice telephony providers as their voice bits get repriced down toward that of data bits," said Quinton.

Avoiding Direct Sales

One Voip start-up, Net2Phone Inc., (NTOP) has given up on its strategy to market services directly to consumers in the U.S., although it does so overseas.

In the U.S., Net2Phone is focused on selling Voip gear to cable firms, says Chief Executive Stephen Greenberg.

It's working with Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico and Cebridge Connections, the 12th largest cable firm.

"We've been there, done that," Greenberg said of a retail Voip services. "That business model doesn't work. The cost per customer acquisition is simply too high."

AT&T invested in Net2Phone in April 2000 as part of its strategy to offer Voip services via cable wires going into homes. AT&T sold off its stake in Net2Phone, though, which is controlled by IDT Corp. (IDT) and Liberty Media Corp. (L)

AT&T has attempted to partner with cable firms to offer multimedia or phone services since the early 1990s. It spent $100 billion buying cable firms in the late 1990s, but then sold them to Comcast.

AT&T has been unable to forge phone alliances with cable firms because of revenue-sharing and branding issues, analysts say.

At UBS, Hodulik still expects Ma Bell to be a force in Voip services if it goes it alone.

"They're going to be one of the real drivers in the U.S.," Hodulik said. "They have the brand, the technology, 35 million consumer (long-distance) customers and 4 million local customers."

Vonage has signed up about 75,000 Voip customers in the U.S.

Hodulik says AT&T could surpass Vonage next year, thanks to Ma Bell's marketing muscle.

Still, AT&T doesn't own high-speed DSL or cable modem links going into homes. It pays local Bells to lease parts of local phone networks.

In Japan, Softbank Corp. has emerged as a Voip supplier by leasing DSL lines from incumbent NTT Corp. at low rates set by regulators. Softbank sells Voip services under the YahooBB brand. It had 3 million Voip customers as of Sept. 30.

Yahoo Service?

In the U.S., analysts speculate that local Bell SBC Communications Inc. (SBC) may roll out a Yahoo-branded Voip service in 2004. SBC and Yahoo (YHOO) partner in DSL services.

Michael Coe, an SBC spokesman, said "nothing is imminent" in terms of SBC rolling out Voip services. Verizon Communications Inc., (VZ) though, has said it will roll out Voip consumer products next year.

In October, AT&T asked the FCC to clarify rules involving VoIP. About the same time, it disclosed new consumer Voip market trials.

Regulatory policy will be a big factor in driving the downward spiral in pricing, analysts say. Voip services aren't subject to many of the regulations, fees and taxes of normal phone services.

State public service commissions now set prices that local Bells can charge consumers for phone services.

Classified As Information

However, federal regulators are studying whether to keep Voip calls classified as information services that are provided over broadband, not a traditional telecommunications service. There are no price regulations in place for information services, says USB's Hodulik.

And federal regulators are unlikely to impose price regulation on Voip calls because there's no dominant service provider — such as the regional Bells in local phone service.

Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman, said the government "should roll out a real, unstoppable plan for moving to retail price deregulation" as part of a plan to spur VoIP's growth.

Farber believes that eventually firms like Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) could offer Voip services via broadband pipes. Even now, said Hodulik, "it's getting to be an increasingly crowded field."

This story also appeared in:
  • Atlanta Journal Constitution, 12/12/03

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