Blog Post

Global Telcos Plotting a Skype Rival?

AT&T, in conjunction with some 10-15 incumbent telecom carriers — British Telecom, Deutsche Telecom and NTT among them — is plotting to launch a Skype competitor, according to a research report issued this morning by ThinkEquity analyst Anton Wahlman.

This is Wahlman’s theory for now, but his track record is full of theories that have eventually been proven right. For instance, he once issued a report that outlined 16 reasons why Cisco should buy Scientific Atlanta — which the networking giant went on to do, for $6.9 billion. For that reason alone, I put in a call to AT&T to get the lowdown, but all they would offer was the boilerplate phrase, “We can’t comment on this type of speculation.” [digg=]

Anyway, back to the Skype competitor! Essentially what Wahlman is saying is that incumbents are going to offer a VoIP client that will work on the incumbent broadband/3G wireless pipe, and will use a backend platform that will allow folks to make free voice calls to anyone who’s logged into it.

Much the same way as Skype-to-Skype calls are free, incumbents could use their platform to keep calls from each other’s network free. The plan could help them avoid the termination charges and still make money when the calls go off the network to, say, a rival’s phone service or wireless network. “We believe that they will have to use a common client and common software platform in order to make this work,” Wahlman said.

Isn’t it too little, too late? Realistically speaking, there’s a slim chance of anyone catching up with Skype, which keeps adding subscribers and which, despite being mismanaged by its acquirer, has a momentum all its own. “Better late than never,” was Wahlman’s take.

Here are some key points about this yet-unnamed proposed Skype killer:

* To be launched in 2009.
* The concept will be extended to mobile phones eventually.
* The service would run on the carrier broadband connection, and also on top of the 3G/4G wireless broadband pipe.
* The service will be used as a lure for selling other services such as video.
* The incumbent consortium partners can brand this service any way they want.

Big shifts in the telecom landscape are forcing the carriers to think along these lines, Wahlman said in a chat earlier this morning. First, carriers are reluctantly facing up to the fact that voice has become a losing proposition. Thanks to competition from folks like Skype, voice is becoming essentially free. Second, they are losing fixed-line customers with an alarming rapidity.

As I have noted previously on several occasions, the carriers are in a race against time — these line losses basically make their plans to sell other services such as broadband and video impossible, thereby risking their future plans all together. The cost of winning back the customer who switches to, say, cable, VoIP, or a rival’s wireless service is just too high.

In the past, carriers have merely taken half-measures to address the voice-for-free problem. So this is radical new thinking: If voice is a losing business, why shouldn’t the carriers cannibalize it themselves, then sell other services, including video? As Wahlman noted, “Robust data connection is the most valuable service the carriers sell.”

Amen to that. I just find it hard to believe that the dinosaurs are finally getting jiggy with this new way of thinking.

45 Responses to “Global Telcos Plotting a Skype Rival?”

  1. Current “wholesale priced” offerings from certain providers cannot be beaten by any of large TELCO or their conglomerates. However, they are raw services, and thus require user to configure ATA and services such as Voxalot to take full advantage out of them.
    Masses cannot, and don’t want to deal with this techie stuff, so they got to have user friendly interface, even if it makes the service, particularly termination rates, cost 2-5 times more. This is why such services can and will flourish regardless of by whom they are backed: large TELCO, or a startup.

  2. As a consumer I hope that this is true. But as a telephony consultant, watcher, observer, big telco client, I know that these operate so damn slowly that they cant even adjust your callerID sometimes let alone roll-out a new service like this. I dont see it happening. To their own detriment. Pretty soon ATT will simply operate a global fiber network only, as hey will alienate all their end users & as those end users migrate to service providers who give them their calls over that network. Which then makes ATT (and all the other operators (ah, hmmmm, Comcast!)) to stop jerking us around by actually introducing latency/jitter in their networks to ruin our quality. he biggest thing I want from the world right now is a global QoS agreement. OK, and more speed, but that second to QoS.

    Great article.

    Keep it up. More of the same.

    One last thought: what is Apple going to do with the iPhone to let us make these calls from that device because I will be damned if I spend enough n their phone to get a used laptop & then not be able to use TruPhone or similar.

  3. harleyridesagain

    If at&t wants to compete they will do as they always do. They will buy it all out. Remember when they had a monopoly and had to be broken up? They just bought Bellsouth. They are rebuilding there monopoly knowing it will again be broken up. Proving there is big money in selling off pieces to competitors to start new companies.

  4. Withheld

    I read this article with joy. For one, I have worked in startup tech and now work in telco (soon to be departed). I can assure you, the telecom business is a bureaucratic dinosaur where logic and reason and meritocracy do not exist. It is also an environment where people willfully create products or service which will not make money, only to save their bacon. In some cases, these people have become part of the infrastructure.

    They can barely deliver a product themselves with the bureaucracy, governance, and funding approval process. 10-15 together? Haha, the mother of all telecom product launches! Good luck.

    Telecom does not innovate — it FOLLOWS. Not once have I heard my firm say, “We will boldly disrupt the marketplace and allow our product teams to really innovate” – they don’t. They simply copy what is in the marketplace or follow an analyst report.

    It’s time to get back into the startup world — and don’t ask me why I went there! :-)

  5. Standards guy

    I would hope/guess that they are using an implementation of P2P SIP, which is working its way through the IETF standards body. Building another closed system like Skype just doesn’t make any sense. P2P SIP would allow them to use whatever device they choose to roll out i.e. PC client, wireless device, etc.

  6. This would make complete sense from a business perspective. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” or perhaps more accurately the telcos intention would be “join ’em, then beat ’em at their own game”. I don’t like saying this, but in the true mass market, such a thing, pan-telco and pan-global, could trounce Skype without a vast amount of effort. Esp. if it’s easily accessible to mobile and landline users – and the networks are the ones who have the customer relationships and physical connections.

    Skype has fluffed their mobile strategy IMHO – loads of Wifi enabled phones out there and barely a true Skype client to be seen, and the ones that are pipe over the PSTN, leaving it to competitors to offer true mobile VoIP.

  7. The technology is called IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). This architecture, standardized by different bodies such as 3GPP or ETSI, is the choice of telcos to implement not only VoIP, but also videcalls, presence, instant messaging, push-to-x, videosharing, etc.

    You can envision it as a service similar to Skype but standard-based, with assured quality of service and fully inter-operable among different telcos.

    IMS software clients will run on different devices including handsets, PC/laptops and IPTV Set-top-boxes.

    In fact AT&T U-verse Voice is already based in this kind of technology.

  8. The actual scenario is that they will license the technology from skype in order to run it on their networks. They know they will make way more money selling 3g data plans to users who want to surf the internet and talk on voip than on voice plans. I think ibm is going to get into the fray as well, in the integration piece, from the enterprise side. Google will also be next to license the technology.

  9. i use MaxRoam which means i’ve been already avoiding all these costs AND those associated with roaming internationally.

    When i first took up the MaxRoam offer my colleagues told me the incumbent operators would all be launching services like this eminently. They still haven’t launched anything competitive. This article says 2009 but i guess expectant customers will again be disappointed.

  10. If you can’t beat them, join them FAST as the old saying goes!

    The future is approaching so quickly that not only fixed line telcos are under treat but also cell operators. Once iphone type devices become a commodity (which happens faster with every new generation of tech) with a WiMAX connection, who needs a phone line at all? Just text, email or VoIP from your mobile. I’m sure ALL telcos realize this will happen sooner rather than later.

  11. Boris

    Who uses Skype anymore? 7 cents for 1 min of talk time is outrageous, that’s more than the cellular where I live!

    And quality is awful, worse than almost all competitors.

    All it has is a catchy name and lots of marketing hype, amazing how it still works on people.

  12. actually the attraction of VOIP has very little to do with anything other than price. most of the savings is due to lack of customer service support and advertising. if the major telco really want to fight back the way to do it is to offer an absolutely rock bottom priced unlimited calling plan. since calling would be unlimited for a fixed monthly fee the majority of customer service and billing issue support wou8ld disappear overnight. instead of running high priced commercial advertising for promotion they could just all compete with the lowest possible pricing.

  13. This was hilarious!!!

    Who on gods green earth thinks that a consortium of incumbent telcos can roll out a joint offering successfully. Telcos can not even roll out a single service themselves.
    April fools is over.

  14. Joann Everman

    It is difficult to see a single company coming out with the product with the amount of bureaucracy involved. With 10-15 companies there is no chance.

  15. Mike Clark

    Hopefully they will be smart enough to use SIP and make it open instead of something like the closed and proprietary Skype bullsh*t

  16. DevlinD

    Skype should either just rent out their infrastructure to the Telcos or license their model to them. Either way I’m sure they could work out an agreement whereby the telcos would pay them a fee of some sort (sliding or fixed depending on the arrangement) and the telcos could basically keep all the revenue generated from the customer calling actions.

    I think outsourcing the infrastructure to Skype would be the ideal way to go since this model has proven extremely cost effective with emerging technologies (see Amazon Web Services) and allows the end consumer (in this case the telcos) to focus on the user experience (something that they suck at) instead of the mundane management of the infrastructure.

    Skype has tried to maneuver their way onto handsets basically through the back door, but failed to realize that their true benefit is not the client itself, but the infrastructure behind it. Oh and their massive customer base doesn’t hurt either. In order to leverage those existing customers, by creating a deal with the telcos to use their infrastructure a la AWS it would be beneficial to just make those accounts transferable to their users’ preferred carriers thus creating a massive value add for the carriers, Skype, and the customers. Monetizing the telecommunications business is tricky but something that the telcos know how to do and Skype has had relatively limited success in doing. They basically fill the gaps in each other’s portfolios, Skype provides the infrastructure and their users (thus generating them revenue) and the telcos provide their marketing and revenue generating plans/services to their customers along with access to cheap calling.

  17. Addendum to my previous comment: I meant free calls to any device, anywhere in the world via non-telco channels similar to Skype, Grand Central-GTalk, Gizmo, etc. So essentially, the telcos will still be behind the leading edge VoIP applications.

  18. Too little, too late is right. By the time the telcos roll this out, free calls to any device, anywhere in the world will be much closer to reality. So, the telcos will keep chasing a moving target.

  19. Dont think the “free calls within my walled garden” approach is going to fly. The consumers are already used to free PC to PC calling anywhere over the internet.