A flurry of new phone services for corporate Canada

Enterprise telecom managers might face some tough choices in the near future as carriers battle for control of the voice-over-IP (VoIP) market, said one industry analyst, speaking on the very day that two new IP phone offerings hit the street.

“I feel sorry for enterprises,” Roberta Fox said Monday. She’s president of Fox Group Consulting, a network advisory firm in Markham, Ont. “All of these companies are going to be beating down their doors saying, ‘Ours is better, ours is better.'”

Two service providers buzzing businesses’ doorbells unleashed IP phone systems yesterday, although the carriers in question are aiming for slightly different kinds of customers. Primus Communications Canada Inc. offered up a new version of its TalkBroadband phone service for small and midsized businesses (SMBs), while Bell Canada announced its Managed IP Telephony product, a hosted phone service for large enterprises.

In a statement, Primus called its new TalkBroadband iteration “the first national alternative to traditional phone service for small- and medium-sized businesses.” The product presents SMBs with low priced or free long-distance calling, virtual area codes, conferencing, as well as integrated voice and e-mail messaging. The carrier claims companies can save between 25 and 75 per cent of their telecom costs.

In a statement, Bell said its Managed IP Telephony service is “part of our overall strategy to migrate enterprise customers to an IP platform.” The product provides point-to-point video connections, voice and e-mail integration, instant messaging integration, click-to-call and find me-follow me. The carrier claims companies can save up to 25 per cent of their telecom costs.

Fox said the Primus product would catch the attention of “micro SMBs,” or small businesses just starting out, although the carrier might find it difficult to convince firms that already have telecom services to switch to TalkBroadband. Switching is “always painful,” she said.

Brian Sharwood, a Toronto-based industry analyst at the SeaBoard Group, said Primus faces a challenge when it comes to spreading the word about TalkBroadband for SMBs.

“Making sure people are aware of it” is key, he said, adding that Primus is working with network suppliers to help get the message out.

According to Matt Stein, Primus’s vice-president of new technology and services, his company can integrate TalkBroadband with key systems, and in the future Primus will bring TalkBroadband to private branch exchanges as well. It’s an indication of Primus’s upward aspirations: the firm is aiming for bigger business clients down the road.

“It’s part of the picture,” Stein said. “We’re not there yet.”

Stein said the service would be available in cities that have more than 100,000 residents.

As for Bell, it plans to offer Managed IP Telephony across Canada. This presents two problems.

Firstly, it means Bell might end up cannibalizing its own income, as enterprises already on Bell’s Centrex lines would be the most likely clients for the new service, Sharwood said.

Secondly, in order for Bell to offer the product in its home territories (Ontario, Quebec and the Eastern provinces), it must get approval from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Bell has no such approval yet.

Isabelle Courville, president of Bell’s enterprise group, said the cannibalization issue isn’t so much a problem as part of a grand plan to migrate all of the carrier’s customers to IP phone systems in the coming years. “A part of that will be cannibalizing our own revenue, but very shortly it will be part of the growth.”

Courville said Bell would offer Managed IP Telephony in Alberta and B.C. in July. Since those provinces are outside of Bell’s territory, the carrier doesn’t have to get CRTC approval before turning on the service there. Courville said her company hopes to receive the Commission’s blessing to provide service in territory by July as well.

Fox pointed out that Bell’s and Primus’s services are just the latest in an ever-growing line of IP phone offerings from carriers. Telus Corp. last year cranked up IP-One, a hosted voice and data service for businesses. Telus recently unveiled a new version of that product. Earlier this year Primus unveiled TalkBroadband for residential customers, a service that puts voice traffic onto the Web. Vonage Holdings Corp. out of New Jersey also turned on a residential IP phone service for Canadians recently; and cable companies like Rogers Communications Inc. have been talking about providing IP voice for businesses and consumers for a while.

Fox said she figures it’s just a matter of time before Call-Net Enterprises Inc., Allstream and other carriers also present hosted IP phone systems a la Bell’s newest wares. “It’s going to be a hot summer” for these sorts of things, she said.

Primus’s TalkBroadband for SMBs starts at $27.95 per month, per line. A Bell representative said the firm has no fixed price for Managed IP Telephony.

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