There is a lot of buzz about VoIP Internet phone service. On the consumer side everyone is getting a lot of exposure to Vonage commercials as well as triple play offers from Cable Companies. From a technology standpoint, VoIP is now much more mature than in its nascent days when Internet telephony meant a scratchy voice conversation over two computers. Whereas VOIP Services has been used by Telcos to carry voice traffic over long portions of their networks for years, it is now positioned to become the standard technology used to carry voice traffic over the last mile from every consumer’s home. Increased broadband penetration and advances in VoIP technology make this possible, and now there is a long line of VoIP providers out there looking for a piece of the action. They range from giants like Verizon and Comcast to relatively small unknowns. For the first time in the history of telecommunications it is possible to be a telephony provider without the huge barriers of capital needed for switches and network operation centers (NOCS).) nor the regulatory barrier of being a Local Exchange Carrier. So will the industry be marked by many small nimble players? What is the likelihood of survival for small consumer VoIP service providers?
The Cable TV companies have a strong position in the telephony market. They already have a large embedded base of customers. They also have a local presence, with field installers regularly driving around neighborhoods and customer service locations in every town in which they have a franchise. Having the field installers is a major advantage since they can install VoIP service and also hook up inside wiring so the service experience is no different than before. Therefore a person doesn’t have to be the least bit technically inclined to adopt the service, thereby opening the market to the masses. The pure-plays like Vonage just can’t reach the mass market like this.
Cable companies also have huge brand awareness in their markets. What is also potentially important is that they are perceived as a utility company and people are used to getting phone service from this type of entity. There is a familiarity and comfort level of going to a utility company for phone service.
They also have tremendous strength in both billing and customer service. While some may hate the cable company because they have lengthy time windows for showing up for an installation, may show up late, and may keep you on hold at the call center, the Cable companies are in actuality very good at managing the complexities of their operations. For example, RCN entered some markets years ago as an alternate cable provider thinking they could leverage people’s dislike of the cable companies’ service record and do it better; instead they ended up realizing how very complex it is and ended up doing it worse. If a company wants to scale as a major VoIP provider, they will have to manage the complexities of billing and customer service. The cable companies have been down this road already.
Here is what could be the biggest factor to why the Cable companies will be most successful at VoIP and ruin the chances of other smaller entrants – They provide a broadband connection. Since this is required for VoIP, the incumbent provider has the first dibs on providing voice service. Also, since broadband connections have high margins and VoIP has low margins, broadband providers could treat voice service as a loss leader to get and keep customers on their high-speed connections. NetZero, for instance, is giving away free telephone numbers and low priced VoIP service presumably with the hopes of signing on users for their ISP. Voice service could in fact become so commoditized that it will be given away with broadband service the same way email is today. If this becomes a reality, there would be very little market opportunity and a bleak survival outlook for smaller pure-play VoIP service providers unless they could offer a differentiated value proposition.