Internet Phone Companies Ripe for Sale?
By Josh Long
As more phone and cable giants sweep
into the Internet phone market, Vonage Holdings Corp. and other VoIP startups
like 8×8 Inc. could face escalating pressure to sustain growth and differentiate
themselves from their larger rivals.
Will the Internet phone startups be a target for acquisition
by larger competitors? Analysts say it is improbable, particularly in the short
term. The Internet phone companies new calling plans are much cheaper than
traditional voice packages and the upstarts have so few customers relative to
the biggest phone and cable providers. Verizon Communications Inc., for example, has 57.3 million
access lines, compared to the 400,000 lines Vonage the No. 1 Internet phone
company had at the beginning of the year.
Does the Bell company snap them up? Why? The Bell companies
have enormous resources, says IDC analyst Will Stofega.
The Internet phone companies could become targets after they
have a large enough customer base and the technology is proven, says Michael
Callahan, president and managing partner with financial consulting firm, RKP
Steering Group. This is the first inning of the game and none of those
companies have made a career, he says.
Vonage is the leader in the VoIP market, followed by
CableVision Systems Corp. and Time Warner Cable. CableVision revealed in early
December it had about 250,000 voice subscribers. Time Warner Cable, the second
largest cable company, anticipated ending 2004 with about 200,000 subscribers.
Analysts say Verizon and the other regional phone companies
are in no hurry to migrate millions of switched phone customers to unlimited
VoIP calling on the cheap. VoIP providers sell such packages for as little as
$19.99 per month; in contrast, Verizon offers unlimited calling on its
circuit-switched network for between $45.95 and $69.95, depending on the state
and the package of features.
Callahan says Verizon selectively will market VoIP service to
its DSL customers. The company had 3.3 million DSL lines at the end of the third
quarter and is offering its Verizon Online DSL customers unlimited VoIP calling
for $29.95 during the first year. The phone giant has not revealed the number of
customers subscribing to its VoIP service called VoiceWing nor offered
While the major telcos have tens of millions of
circuit-switched phone customers, the voice business largely represents a new
area of growth for the biggest cable operators. The cable companies are
aggressively expanding into the regional phone companies breadand- butter
business voice and cable titan Comcast Corp. is planning to expand VoIP
to 20 markets reaching 15 million homes by the end of the year. The No. 1 cable
operator plans to make service available throughout its network by the end of
2006, it and anticipates achieving 20 percent market penetration by the fifth
year, according to a presentation at an investor conference. The
Philadelphia-based company already has 1.2 million circuit-switched phone
customers through its 2002 acquisition of AT&T Broadband.
Vonage CEO Jeffrey Citron tells PHONE+ he anticipates Comcast
quickly will become one of the largest VoIP providers, although he does not
think Comcast will sign up 1 million subscribers by the end of the year. That is
Vonages goal. We think we should be able to hit a million users, Citron
says. That figure would represent up to one third of the 2005 U.S. VoIP market
under one research firms estimate. Frost & Sullivan projects 3 million to
4 million customers this year, with about 16 million subscribers in 2008.
Compared to the biggest phone and cable companies, the
pureplay Internet phone providers can only grow so much because they have
limited capital, says Frost & Sullivan analyst Jon Arnold. Vonage has raised $208 million.
Another advantage for the traditional phone and cable
companies: they have tens of millions of subscribers. IDC analyst Stofega says
he anticipates the big companies will begin taking market share from the
pure-play VoIP providers in 2005. Not only do the likes of Comcast and Verizon
dwarf the startups in terms of revenue and customers, they also have the
networks to deliver other lucrative communications services, including
high-speed Internet access, wireless services and television.
Vonage has a good affordable voice alternative to your
telephone, Arnold says. But really that is all.
Citron says the company is comfortable with its primary
service and will expand to support advanced services like wireless high-speed
Internet access. In January, Vonage announced a partnership with telecom
equipment maker UTStarcom Inc. to introduce a portable Wi-Fi handset later this
year. Vonage has not announced any plans to offer cellular phone service.
Citron also made clear offering video service is not part of
Vonages strategy. Were not in the business of selling video, he
Huw Reese, vice president of sales and marketing with
California-based 8×8, cites many reasons he feels 8×8 delivers a service that is
distinguished from the cable company offerings. For starters, 8×8 has developed
its own end-to-end technology, which Reese asserts gives the company better
control over quality and reliability. Reese also says 8×8 has a video phone and
designed a virtual office retail phone package for small and medium
businesses. Those businesses are generally not passed by the cable companies,
Another reported advantage: portability. A snowbird
migrating to his winter home can take his Internet phone adapter on the road
from, say, New Jersey to Arizona; not all the cable companies selling IP phone
service offer the portable capability.
Then, there is price. 8×8 offers unlimited calling in North
America for $19.95 per month. Reese says he has not seen a cable company offer
service for below $29.95 per month. But despite the low prices, CableVision and
Time Warner Cable have a much larger number of voice customers than 8×8. 8×8
ended the third quarter with 26,000 lines.
Were making sure our customer-acquisition costs [are] at
such a level that we get profitable customers onto our service, says Reese,
whose company has raised $26.2 million over the last two years. We are trying
to be cautious somewhat and sensible in terms of the amount we spend and the
amount of customers we acquire.
Reese says that does not mean the opportunities are limited
considering the size of the market. The market is not just the United States.
The market is the world, he says. 8×8 reports that about one in 10 customers
live outside Canada and the United States even though the company does not
advertise outside the United States.
Frost & Sullivan analyst Arnold says the Internet phone
companies will probably be less attractive as acquisition candidates if they
really cant muster a subscriber base. He notes an exception: If the startups woo a certain customer segment, such as the
ethnic market or gamers. Vonage is probably the only one of those guys who
would become a serious acquisition candidate by a bigger player, the analyst
Vonages Citron says it is inappropriate for him to discuss
a possible merger or acquisition, and he declined to discuss other possible
finance options, such as an initial public offering.
Says Reese of 8×8: Certainly our desire at this time is to
remain independent and we are pursuing our business in such a way we are
intending to create a long-term, viable business i.e. a business that is
profitable. 8×8 posted a loss of $3.7 million on revenue of $2.5 million for
the quarter ending Sept. 30.
Analysts are still waiting for massive developments to trigger
extraordinary growth in the IP phone market.
Its a very, very, very early market, IDC analyst
Stofega says. No one really knows what is going to jumpstart this market.
Arnold has an idea: naked DSL. With the exception of Qwest,
the regional Bells high-speed Internet customers also must purchase a local
phone line from the Bell, he says. The analyst says the VoIP market could
explode once that restriction is removed because customers would no longer be
obligated to keep their plain old telephone service. Once you have naked DSL,
the consumer really has no reason to keep their POTS line if they trust VoIP,
8×8 Inc. www.8×8.com