VoIP carrier goes quietly

After burning through US$88 million in four years, TollBridge Technologies Inc. last week joined the long list of companies that have shut down due to their inability to secure additional funding from a now-capricious venture capital community.

In a statement e-mailed to a select group of TollBridge’s partners, customers, and supporters, the former developer of IP-based voice over broadband gateway platforms acknowledged that the company had ceased operations. The statement also spoke of the company’s relative success in attracting customers and offering 99.999 percent service availability with its early VoDSL gateway.

In May 2001, the company introduced the TB300, a PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) gateway that would permit cable operators to offer customers VoIP (voice over IP) service over their existing circuit-switched gear.

According to Kevin Woods, now former vice president of marketing at TollBridge, the company’s gateway was in trials with Comcast and Cox Communications and was actually selected by one of the cable operators to launch a telephony service to consumer customers. Woods would not indicate which of the two it was, but went on to explain that the company was having success in attracting customers, yet was in need of more funding. He explains the funding fell through at the eleventh hour.

The collapse of the company was a surprise to many, including its former employees. “We were called in for a meeting and it was announced the company was shutting down,” said an engineer, who requested anonymity. “I was shocked. I thought we were going to be told we had got more funding.”

The employees weren’t the only ones who were surprised by the news.

“[The company ceasing operations] was a surprise,” said Michael W. Harris, founder of Kinetic Strategies, a Phoenix-based broadband analyst firm. “But their challenge was slow acceleration of the cable telephony market.”

Harris explains that offering voice over their infrastructure is not a top priority for many cable operators today.

“Voice is on the backburner,” said Harris. “Their priorities today are differentiating their service from the satellite providers — their capital expenditures are going to technologies that enable video on demand.”

The TB300 was configured for voice over PacketCable applications, a set of interface specifications for delivering multimedia services over two-way cable, and worked between DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) cable networks and existing telephone networks. The gateway supported as many as 8,000 voice lines per unit and could be connected to the PSTN via a traditional Class 5 switch.

Woods concluded that customers and potential customers would seek out products from competitors, including Nuera and comMatch.

The company closed its doors on June 10, as it did not have enough cash to pay its 75 employees to continue working.

Investors in the company — ComVentures and Matrix Partners, both Northern California-based venture firms — did not return requests for comment. Both firms had partners on TollBridge’s board.

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