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Failure To Quickly Respond To Internet Telephony's Rising Popularity -- At Home And At Work -- Could Cost Incumbent Telcos Plenty

January 5, 2004

By Jane Black

Bob Johnson is one of the people who are about to turn the phone industry upside down. The director of telecommunications and network services at Dartmouth College, Johnson has contracted with a traditional telco for years to provide the school with phone service. When his current contract expires in March, though, Johnson expects to switch to one of the hot Voip (voice over Internet protocol) outfits that are lining up to steal customers from traditional carriers.

Making phone calls via the Net will slash Dartmouth's annual phone bill by 25% to 40%, Johnson figures. And though some established carriers offer Voip service, Johnson expects the startups to be cheaper. Muayyad Al-Chalabi, an analyst with telecom consultancy RHK in San Francisco, thinks the newcomers will charge as much as 30% less.


That's a potentially huge problem for the U.S. telecom industry. Based on its recent survey of 270 corporations, tech consultancy Meta Group in Stamford, Conn., estimates that nearly 30% of U.S. businesses may move to Voip within two years. Consumers won't be far behind: By 2009, the Net will carry 40% of calls made in the U.S., estimates the New Millennium Research Council in a December report. People will be using the technology to make regular as well as some cell-phone calls.

As this shift occurs, Voip may give phone companies' competitors their first real chance at success in years. Unlike traditional phone service, Voip isn't regulated -- at least for now. And many of the new providers -- including Time Warner Cable, a subsidiary of Time Warner (TWX ), Comcast (CMCSA ), and Cox Communications (COX ) -- have the marketing muscle and sophisticated networks needed to compete with established phone companies.

To these cable guys, Voip looks irresistible, since it has the potential to generate as much as $300 per year in extra revenue per subscriber, says Andrei Jezierski, a partner at tech consultancy i2 Partners in New York. By including Voip into their bundle of other services, cable operators can also reduce customer turnover by more than 50%, estimates Bryan Wiener, president of global services at Voip service provider Net2Phone (NTOP ).


If they play their cards right, cable outfits could grab 5% to 20% of the $200 billion phone-services pie within 10 years, according to various estimates. The winners and losers will start to become apparent as early as 2005, says Chris Finn, a partner at IT consultancy IBM Global Services. He believes that eventually a majority of consumers could end up making their calls via cable. He adds that a few well-positioned traditional carriers -- such as AT&T (T ), which has its own Internet protocol network and is already running trials of Voip services in three states -- might dominate the corporate market.

Likely losers could include phone companies that hold off on offering VoIP. That's because customers soon will expect Voip to be a basic component of Internet access, says Vinton Cerf, a senior vice-president at MCI and the co-inventor of the Internet protocol, the technology standard for sending and retrieving data over the Web that Voip uses. Eventually, wireless service providers could be affected by Voip as well, but that's farther in the future, say experts.

Particularly vulnerable to this new competition could be carriers that primarily serve local markets, including Verizon (VZ ), SBC Communications (SBC ), and BellSouth (BLS ). About 30% of their revenue comes from fees paid by other telcos for the use of their networks to complete calls, estimates RHK's Al-Chalabi. As calling via the Internet spreads, the usefulness of such arrangements will decline. What's more, the established outfits are accustomed to moving slowly -- a problem when dealing with a technology that could start eating into their businesses within six months, says Finn.


The telcos believe their expertise in phone services won't be easily acquired by rivals and will, in the end, save their business. "Providing voice services of high quality and reliability isn't an easy thing to do," says David Young, director of technology policies at the nation's biggest telecom, Verizon.

Even the incumbents that react nimbly will suffer, however: As competition intensifies, monthly charges could fall as much as 30% over the next two years, estimates Al-Chalabi. Thus, the established carriers' revenue growth could flatten and their profit margins compress as newcomers take more business.

Cable outfits may be the primary threat. Already, two out of three broadband customers in the U.S. get their Internet service from cable providers, for whom Voip is rapidly becoming a top priority. "We're very serious," says Gerry Campbell, Time Warner's senior vice-president for voice. "Our CEO is clearly focused on this." Time Warner will roll out its Voip service across most markets in 2004, making it available in a bundle with cable subscriptions at a discount, Campbell says.


Pure-play Voip concerns will also provide competition. Though some analysts question their staying power, these businesses are signing up subscribers quickly. Privately held Vonage in Edison, N.J., has attracted 85,000 customers since its launch three years ago -- and says it's adding 10,000 more per month. Its Voip plans range from $14.99 to $34.99 a month, with the latter including an unlimited bucket of anywhere minutes -- nearly a 30% discount to fees of traditional players.

Vonage also offers features such as a virtual phone number that works in any of 180 area codes, says Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Citron. For an extra $4.95 a month, a customer in California who constantly calls New York can now dial the East Coast as a local number. So far, the established carriers that offer Voip mainly offer a few basic features, such as voice mail and caller ID -- and those only in a few states.

The phone companies' grip on corporate accounts could also be threatened -- by both their own customers and by telecom-equipment makers. In the past, large customers have set up PBXs (private branch exchanges) -- internal phone networks managed by a telco. As corporations switch to VoIP, they'll realize that they can manage their own phone system using a voice-over-IP PBX, says Elizabeth Ussher, a Villa Park (Calif.) analyst with Meta Group. Voip PBXs, supplied by the likes of Cisco Systems (CSCO ) and Alcatel (ALA ), started to gain significant market share just before the economic downturn.

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  • TechNewsWorld, 1/6/03

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