CES Calling: VoIP Talk in Vegas

The show floor at CES 2005 in Las Vegas doesn't open until tomorrow, but IP communications was the hot topic at the pre-show Consumer VoIP Summit today. Top executives with VoIP service providers Vonage, AT&T, 8x8, BroadVoice and VoicePulse provided an update on their service rollouts. Vonage leads the pack with over 400,000 VoIP customers. Of course, these providers have been able to make inroads without meaningful IP phone competition from cable operators. Those days are over, though, thanks to the aggressive VoIP rollouts underway by Cablevision and Time Warner Cable, as well as Charter and Comcast starting to ramp their voice businesses. Before long, U.S. MSOs will be adding more than 20,000 new VoIP subs per week alone. When pressed on the issue by yours truly, the VoIP upstarts admitted they've had things easy so far. 'The cable guys are clearly going to take share,' conceded David Epstein, president of BroadVoice. And what about cable's effect on brash VoIP pioneer Vonage? 'Cable is very geographically based and they will get traction,' said Michael Tribolet, Vonage's EVP of operations. 'That doesn't mean there isn't room in the industry [for us].' By 'geographically based,' Tribolet meant that MSOs have marketing footprints that are limited by their network reach. Interestingly, though, geography-free VoIP service by at least one measure has proven to be a non-starter: the use of out-of-area codes. That is, the ability for consumers living in say, San Francisco's 415 area code, to buy VoIP service using a 212 Manhattan number. This was touted as a huge advantage by VoIP upstarts that are access-network agnostic, but in practice, consumers don't seem to care much about it. 'We thought it would be hugely popular. It wasn't,' said Bryan Martin, president and CEO, 8x8. Arguing a rising tide lifts all boats, some see plenty of room for both pipe owners like MSOs and VoIP-pure plays to thrive in the future. 'There will be two camps: those that bundle broadband access with VoIP and those that over VoIP over the top [of any broadband service],' said Sureel Choksi, EVP, Level 3 Communications. 'I believe both will be successful. I think both models are fundamentally sound.'
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