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Vonage Eyes Canada For Expansion Of VoIP Service

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Vonage Eyes Canada For Expansion Of Voip Service

May 16, 2003

TORONTO -(Dow Jones)- Vonage Holding Corp., a closely held voice over Internet-protocol (VoIP) phone company based in the U.S., aims to start offering telephony services to residential customers in Canada by the end of this year, which could mean that rates charged by Canada's existing phone companies could come under further pressure. Canada's residential phone market is dominated by the country's incumbents - BCE Inc.'s (BCE) Bell Canada, Telus Corp. (TU), Aliant Inc. (T.AIT), and Manitoba Telecom Services (T.MBT) - and Call-Net Enterprises Inc. (CNEZF), an alternative service provider.

Founded in January 2001, Vonage of Edison N.J. offers its service in the U.S. to residential and small-business customers who already have a high-speed Internet connection. It has about 20,000 customers, according to the company's Web site. To try to penetrate the Canadian market, Vonage is in contract negotiations for a partnership with a Canadian communications company, said Louis Holder, Vonage's executive vice-president of product development. "We'll probably see something (in Canada) by the end of this year (but) not 100% penetrated until early next year," Holder said.

Typically, the cost to transmit a call over a broadband network is cheaper because that kind of network is less expensive to operate than a circuit-based network, and the capacity of a broadband network is greater. However, some industry observers have argued that Voip technology can't match the quality of service, security and reliability that retail customers have come to expect from traditional phone networks.

Vonage hasn't decided on the expected pricing for its offering in Canada. The average monthly phone bill in Canada is around C$50, including a dial-up, or low-speed, Internet connection, according to Mark Quigley, Canadian research director for Yankee Group, a U.S.-based consulting firm.

In the U.S., Vonage offers its customers unlimited calls anywhere in the U.S. as well as calls to Canada plus several other calling features for US$39.99 a month. Vonage subscribers also need a high-speed Internet connection.

By comparison, Holder said the average phone bill in the U.S. for a residential customer is about US$72 a month. "It's certainly a disruptive business model," said Danny Klein, a communications network infrastructure analyst in the Yankee Group's Boston office. "I think if nothing else, every large tier-one and tier-two service provider (in the U.S.) knows of (Vonage) and is scared of them," Klein said.

Earthlink Pact Seen As Model

Vonage would expect to model its partnership in Canada on its arrangement in the U.S. with Earthlink Inc. (ELNK), an Internet service provider, Holder said. Though the voice service carries the Earthink brand, Vonage oversees the entire telephony operation on behalf of Earthlink.

Holder declined to identify the Canadian companies that are possible partners for Vonage. He did indicate that Vonage was in talks with two firms from among the group that includes Shaw Communications Inc. (SJR), Rogers Communications Inc. (RG), AT&T Canada Inc. (ATTC) and Call-Net.

AT&T Canada, an alternative phone company, certainly speaks highly of Vonage. Though AT&T Canada is focused on servicing business customers, it is considering the idea of expanding into the retail market at some point. On the company's recent earnings conference call, John MacDonald, AT&T Canada's chief operating officer, highlighted Vonage's success in the U.S. as an indication of the potential of using new technologies to offer telephony services to residential and small business customers.

"Some of the technologies...are starting to get ready for prime time in terms of what the price points are; there are companies that are actually quite successful in terms of growing their customer base using completely non-traditional technologies; companies like Vonage out of the States...," MacDonald said.

May Chong, an AT&T Canada spokeswoman, said Friday that AT&T Canada isn't in t alks with Vonage. MacDonald was using Vonage as an example to highlight the different technologies available for offering voice services, the spokeswoman said.

A Call-Net spokeswoman said her firm is aware of Vonage, but the company isn't in talks with the company. Alexander Brock, vice-president of business development at Rogers, "has talked with everybody" in connection with the possibility of Rogers offering telephony services to the retail market in the future. However, Brock suggested that Rogers' intention would be to operate any telephony service itself if it chose to pursue this project, unless "there is some compelling economic or technical reason why we should go outside," the firm.

A Shaw spokesman wasn't immediately available for comment.

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