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Primus Service Nips At Telcos' Heels

Vonage In Print News

January 12, 2004

By Dave Ebner

Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc. launched a major assault on the dominance of Canada's telephone companies Thursday, unveiling the country's first local phone service using high-speed Internet connections.

The new TalkBroadband service connects an ordinary telephone to a home computer through a data device, using the Internet to transport calls.

Primus Canada's rates are at least 15 per cent cheaper than those of traditional phone companies, which use older networks to connect calls.

"Customers now have choice," said Ted Chislett, president of Primus Canada. He called his company's offers "the first true alternative" in the local phone market to the country's biggest communications companies, Bell Canada and Telus Corp.

The local residential market was opened to competition in 1998 but six years later Bell, Telus and their peers are still fully in control. The former monopolies accounted for 98.9 per cent of the $5.14-billion market in 2002, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

But using the Internet for phone calls threatens to remake the landscape of the telecommunications business.

Primus is the first to move but others, such as large cable television companies like Shaw Communications Inc., are poised to introduce their own service by next year.

"It's going to significantly shake up the local market," said Ian Angus of telecom consultancy Angus TeleManagement. "If Primus can deliver what they're promising, they could do really well."

Mr. Angus was particularly impressed with Primus Canada's prices. Numerous observers have said that local phone prices, set by the federal regulator, are already too low in Canada, discouraging competition. But Primus Canada has undercut those rates by at least 15 per cent, and as much as a third when options such as voice mail and call display are included.

A high-speed Internet connection is required. Unlimited long distance is available for $20 a month, meaning that when combined with Primus Canada's basic service, unlimited local and long-distance calling costs only $40 a month.

"The deals are pretty impressive," Mr. Angus said. "A significant segment of the population are potential buyers."

In a recent report, BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. said Primus Canada's gambit will push more players into the market and "adds additional impetus to the cable companies to launch service sooner rather than later."

Until now, Sprint Canada Inc. was the only national competitor to the former monopolies in the local market. Owned by Call-Net Enterprises Inc. of Toronto, the company resells traditional service rather than taking a new approach. It has had modest success at best, attracting about 200,000 customers -- a fraction of Telus's and Bell's almost 12 million connections.

Toronto-based Primus Canada, owned by Primus Telecommunications Group Inc. of McLean, Va., is primarily a seller of long-distance service with more than 900,000 customers. The TalkBroadband service is available to anyone with high-speed Internet, although Primus is only offering it to telephone numbers is seven area codes: British Columbia's 604, Alberta's 780 and 403, Ontario's 613, 905 and 416 and Quebec's 514.

Customers anywhere can choose any number. That means if a person living in Vancouver has lots of family and friends in Toronto, a 416 number can be chosen so that all calls are local -- even though the callers are thousands of kilometres apart.

Customers in Toronto, Vancouver and other large cities can also choose to keep their telephone number if they switch to Primus from Bell or Telus.

However, John Henderson, an analyst at Scotia Capital Inc., said he thinks Primus Canada's service will appeal more to customers looking for a cheaper alternative to a second phone line. About 7 per cent of lines -- one million or so -- in Canada are second lines.

Mr. Henderson called the service "complementary" to the fixed-line connections from Bell and Telus. He said the threat to Bell and Telus is "small," but said it is an issue to consider.

Internet telephone calls until recently were plagued with problems, specifically voice quality. That hurdle has been cleared and at times the fidelity of a call using the Internet surpasses a standard phone call. Other small companies, such as Vonage Holdings Corp. of Edison, N.J., are winning customers in the United States. Vonage plans to introduce Canadian service in the next couple months.

Questions remain, however. One issue is that 911 service isn't available yet through Primus, although the company said it would be available soon. The local market is also heavily regulated, while the Internet is lightly regulated. The CRTC is presently considering an application to address the burgeoning Internet telephony market.

Vancouver-based Telus said Primus Canada's offering is a clear sign competition is "alive and well" but believes Internet telephone service is inferior to a traditional connection.

"It's not a credible substitute," said James Goliath, Telus's vice-president of marketing and multimedia solutions.

Bell, owned by BCE Inc. of Montreal, is testing its own residential service using the Internet for phone calls. In December, the company staked much of its future on Internet protocol technology, which uses Internet standards to deliver voice and data over a single network.

"Our industry is being remade," Michael Sabia, BCE president and chief executive officer, said in December. "We will not be outflanked."

(BCE also controls Bell Globemedia, owner of The Globe and Mail and CTV television.)

Yesterday, Lawson Hunter, BCE's head of regulatory affairs, said the industry needs guidelines from the CRTC.

"The commission has to make it clear to everyone what the rules are.",

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