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Telecoms Struggle With Impact Of Internet Calls


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Telecoms Struggle With Impact Of Internet Calls

April 15, 2004

By Justin Hyde

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Internet phone services signing up thousands of new customers a day, telecom industry observers are beginning to question how well the old local phone companies will defend themselves against a growing throng of competitors.

So far, cable companies and firms like Vonage have only nibbled at the edges of the local telephone market with voice over Internet Protocol service, or VOIP, winning about 250,000 customers.

But as more households sign up for broadband Internet service, and larger players such as AT&T Corp, unveil their Voip service, executives and analysts see the threat to the Baby Bells rising.

"This is about choice," said John Rego, chief financial officer of Vonage, in a meeting with investors on Wednesday. "The competition right now is the 187 million wireline phones controlled by the (local phone companies), and that's what we're going after."

Voip services convert voice signals into data and send them over the Internet, similar to e-mail. Because Voip services use public networks and software rather than a fixed circuit, the service is far less expensive to build and maintain than traditional phone systems.

That allows Vonage to offer unlimited local and long distance calling for $35 a month, about $20 less than similar plans from the Baby Bells, and still have equal or larger gross profit margins, analysts said.

While Voip service can suffer from lower-quality sound and more dropped or blocked calls than landline phones, the market appears ready to give it a try. According to a Gallup poll commissioned by UBS analysts, about 34 percent of broadband users would sign up for a Voip service if it would save them 20 percent or more over their old phone service.

The Empires Strike Back

So far, Vonage has about half of the Voip market, with roughly 130,000 subscribers.

But AT&T launched its Voip service earlier this month, and many cable companies are either already offering Voip service or testing it. Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, says it will test Voip this year with a few hundred customers with an eye toward a wider roll-out in 2005.

Last month, credit rating agency Standard & Poor's cited Voip as one of its major reasons for putting the ratings of Verizon Communications Inc., the largest local U.S. phone company, under review for a possible downgrade &P analyst Catherine Cosentino estimates that Baby Bells could lose billions in revenues to Voip and other competitors over the next few years, and that Voip may turn their franchise service into a commodity with a declining price.

The Baby Bells will "be hard pressed to maintain their current 40 percent-plus margins, which have already declined from the 50 percent they had been able to maintain during much of the 1990s, when competition, particularly in the consumer sector, was nascent," Cosentino and other S&P analysts wrote in a research report this week.

Other observers see a lesser threat. Goldman Sachs analyst Frank Governali said on Wednesday that cable companies and other Voip services could take 20 percent of local phone lines by 2013, but that the Baby Bells could offset their revenue losses by pushing their own broadband and Voip services, along with business contracts and wireless growth.

And the Baby Bells have plans to fight back. Qwest and SBC Communications Inc, are trying out Voip services, and Verizon is expected to unveil its Voip service in the next several weeks, offering nationwide coverage at what it calls a "competitive" price.

Michelle Swittenberg, Verizon's director of consumer voice over IP, said Verizon believes many people who get Voip service will keep a landline phone as well.

"As much as we view this as an opportunity...if someone's going to leave for VOIP, we want them to leave for Verizon," Swittenberg told an investors' conference.



 
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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 www.vonage.com/911 for details.

** Certain call types excluded.

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