Thursday, June 30, 2005

Voxilla Comes to Canada

Here's another sign of life for the Canadian VoIP market. Voxilla, who is a well known industry news service, also provides an interesting and useful set of resources about VoIP. It's a great place to go if you have questions about how to make your ATA or router work better. And lots more.

They have just launched a Canadian retail online operation, where VoIP users can buy a wide range of end points and peripherals, priced in $ Canadian. Finally, a place where Canadians can order something in Canada and pay for it in local currency. Now that's progress! Canadians have long been second class citizens in the world of ecommerce - they're not as comfortable buying online as Americans, but when they do buy, it's usually from an American site, which means paying in $US, not to mention shipping and Customs charges. Not easy.

The Canadian Voxilla operations will be based in Vancouver, BC - not surprising since Voxilla corporate is San Francisco-based.

Two things about the storefront caught my eye...

First is the Dock 'n Talk Cell Phone Station. To me, it looks a lot like one of Pulver Innovations' old products, the CellSocket. It's no longer offered, but I always thought it was a great idea. The Dock 'n Talk is great for people with huge buckets of unused minutes in their mobile plans, and want to route those calls over their home landline for better quality reception. Those types of mobile plans are common in the U.S., but not in Canada. So, the uptake may not be as strong here - Canadians are not as in love with their cell phones as Americans, but they do use them a lot, no doubt.

Small sidebar here - Pulver Innovations has its own online store as well. There's only a handful of products there now - no Cell Socket, but it's a similar concept to Voxilla.

The second feature of note is VoIP Services. This sounded promising, but there's nothing offered yet. That's ok, but I'm just wondering if they'll turn into a portal where people can find out about various VoIP offerings, compare them, etc., and maybe even sign up online? That could be very interesting.

VoIP has not been marketed to the masses yet in Canada - this is a serious downside to the CRTC's VoIP ruling, which effectively keeps the ILECs out of the game, at least for now. When the ILECs control 98% of the market, it's pretty tough to create mass awareness and adoption without them. The MSOs will have some success, but they're still outsiders for telecom services. So, this is a long-winded way of saying that Voxilla's VoIP Services could be helpful in building the market here, but they're hardly a household name. They have built it, and hopefully people will come. Let's hope so - Canada needs more initiatives like this.

Stay tuned, it should be an interesting summer here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Mr Rogers' Neighborhood - Red All Over - Including Me

How's that for a cryptic headline? Read on, and I'll explain.

Today Rogers Communications announced their much-anticipated foray into consumer telephony. Branded "Home Phone", this service will be offered July 1, and marks the true beginning of the battle of the bundle in Ontario. More on that in a moment.

Without a doubt, this offering has the least to do with VoIP of all the plans out there in Canada. "Home Phone" has no connotations about IP, or anything leading edge, for that matter. There's no mention anywhere about this being VoIP - they describe it simply as "reliable, fully featured cable telephone service". What the hell is that???? Sounds more like EastLink than something that's going to keep Bell up at night. Eastlink is Canada's original, and only cable telephony service up until the recent entries, but it's TDM, not IP.

As the press release explains, the pricing options are only for local access and features. LD is extra, and there's no bundling here with other Rogers services. Furthermore, the pricing is nothing to get excited about. It's cheaper than Shaw, but more than Videotron. So, a safe middle ground that will save consumers a little bit of money, but who is going to buy VoIP that doesn't give you some level of LD? On the other hand, you have give them credit for bringing sanity to pricing. At least they'll make money on the service, and I think they can feel safe offering this service without LD in the wake of Bell dropping their loss leader LD deal, where you get 1000 minutes for $5/mo if you take a Bell bundle. They have seen the folly of bringing the pricing bar down so low - eventually these guys have to make money, and it won't happen at $5/mo.

I digress. The real reason they're pricing and offeing it this way is to keep in line with what Sprint Canada's residential customers (Call Net)already have. Rogers made a very savvy move recently in acquiring Call Net. Not only did that bring them the required CLEC license, but it gave them an instant market of about 500,000 residential subscribers. Talk about a great way to leapfrog into the game. So, their first priority is to protect these customers, and bring them over to IP - without calling it IP. Call Net has historically been an LD provider, and Rogers has to carefully manage the transition of this business into their overall operations. As such, Home Phone is a very conservative entry, and is not ready yet to take on Bell head on. Of course, Rogers has that luxury since Bell isn't in the Ontario market yet with VoIP, but it's just a matter of time for that.

So, to my earlier comment about the battle of the bundle. For over a year now, I've been saying that in North America, Ontario is THE market to watch. First, it's a large, highly urban market with over 11 million people, which puts it on par with the majority of US states in terms of size. More importantly, the telco, Bell is the most sophisticated ILEC in North America, and in many ways is way ahead of the RBOCs. Likewise, Rogers, is the dominant MSO, and no U.S. cableco can come close their breadth of offerings. Both operators can offer the Grand Slam, and I can't think of any comparable scenario anywhere in the U.S.

So, the ingredients are all there. With all this buildup, what do we get? First, a CRTC ruling that will effectively keep Bell out of the VoIP market here for a little while. Second, Home Phone from Rogers is not what I had in mind to get this battle underway. It's not even bundled. So, they gave a war, and nobody came. Go back to your trenches, and re-tool. Looks like the battle hasn't begun yet - guess I spoke too soon - but I still stand by my thinking. This will be a great market to watch when it happens.

Now, back to the headline. Mr Rogers, of course, is Ted Rogers. This is the classic family-run cable empire, but he's turned it into something so much more that it's hard to put a label on them. That's one thing I love about Rogers, and they may be the model for the service provider of the future in an all-IP world. They have all the pieces - coax cable, high speed service, voice, LD, wireless and content.

Mr. Rogers' neighborhood can be a very nice place - unless you're Bell Canada. They are by far the dominant video provider in Ontario, and have a very strong high speed subscriber base here. The only thing they really lack is a dial up subscriber base who can be upsold to high speed. By acquiring Microcell, he's made Rogers the #1 wireless player in Canada, and with the favorable CRTC ruling, Rogers is in a great position to enter the voice market. The Call Net acquisition gives them a built-in phone market, so they don't have to buy their way in like Vonage - they become players overnight. They may be carrying a lot of debt, but I'd sure love to be their investment banker!

So what's the deal with "Red All Over"? I already explained that I'm red all over by calling the battle of the bundle too soon. Bear with me, though - it will happen.

The other red stuff is about Rogers and their timing of the announcement.

- Red is their corporate color
- Red is also the corporate color of both Sprint and Call Net. Hmm - do I see a pattern here?? Vonage Canada was smart to brand themselves orange - that would clash badly with Rogers - in the unlikely event they were to become a target! :-)
- Red is Canada's official color, and guess what's coming this weekend? Canada Day! July 1 here is comparable to July 4 in the U.S., and it doesn't hurt for Rogers emphasize this connection.

The timing of the July 1 launch also coincides with a few other things...

- That's the date the Call Net acquisition is to become official, which makes things neat and tidy, and Rogers doesn't skip a beat in making this move pay off, and re-branding Call Net under the Rogers name.

- July 1 marks the 20th anniversary of Rogers' wireless launch - and I've been a subscriber almost that long. They truly were pioneers with wireless in Canada, and now they want to do the same with cable telephony. I see the connection, but so far, they're not reinventing anything with voice.

- Today was their annual shareholder's meeting

- July 1 is Canada Day weekend, a time to celebrate big things that make us proud to be Canadian. Am not sure that this launch achieves that, but the sentimentality will probably work nicely for them.

- July 1 also marks the beginning of the second half of the year, and Rogers wants Canadians to know that when they come back from their cottages this long weekend, there will be a new kid in town, and that true telecom competition will be underway.

Small sidebar - it's also worth noting that today was Nortel's AGM here in Toronto, so Mr. Rogers sure made it hard on the media. Everyone wants to hear how Bill Owens is going to steer Nortel, but Ted must be heard too. Egos will do that I guess. Anyhow, Mark Evans provided some nice real-time Nortel coverage on his blog - worth a read. He also had some good comments about the Rogers news.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Brand X Decision in Forbes

I spoke to Dave Ewalt of Forbes yesterday about this story, and today's updated version of the article includes a quote by me. Thanks Dave!

Jeff Pulver gets some nice linage too, and his take is the same as mine - cablecos will act in their best interests, especially if they can, without fear of regulatory reprisals. Hopefully, this won't be the case, but the VoBB operators really don't have a lot of leverage here.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Musings on the news - past, present and future

Apologies for this extended absence from blogging. I've been sick the past week and am catching up from a long stretch of being on the road at conferences.

That said, I wanted to comment briefly on 3 things - past, present and future.

Past - last week, the embattled CRTC provided a pro-competition ruling on satellite radio, which is now coming to Canada. While not IP, it's interesting to see how the CRTC has taken such an open position on satellite radio, but has remained rather closed when it comes to VoIP.

There are inherent dangers to their satellite radio decision in the sense that it opens up to Canadian market to a whole new deluge of US stations. Lip service is paid to ensure Canadian content, but even the main beneficiaries of the ruling - Sirius and XM - were surprised at how light the Canadian content quotas were.

Canada is very sensitive about protecting it cultural sovereignty, but it's becoming harder and harder to do with all these borderless technologies - satellite radio, satellite TV, and of course, IP. In that regard, one could view their ruling as progressive, and actually acknowledging the fact this is a battle they cannot win. I don't give them that much credit, but it's probably closer to reality. If they could only do the same for VoIP...

Present - today's Brand X ruling by the FCC. This has been commented on extensively already, and it's another indication of how the wind is blowing in the post-Powell FCC. Along with the recent 911 compliance decree, this ruling makes life harder for non-facilities based operators, namely ISPs, to stay in the VoIP game. I think it's pretty late in the day to do this on the premise that MSOs need to protect their broadband investment. Broadband is tomorrow's PSTN, and they will continue investing in it with or without the ISPs.

The real test now comes when the RBOCs push for equal treatment. If the FCC supports that effort, then it's hard to see how ISPs can remain viable. Then the consumer will truly be faced with less choice, higher prices (inevitably), and little support for Net Freedoms, as the last mile carriers will not really be accountable to anyone other than their shareholders. In this scenario, I'd think the focus would shift to wireless - or maybe even powerline - to develop other last mile access channels to keep this market competitive.

Future - Wednesday is Nortel's AGM, and will be the first for Bill Owens. He's not John Chambers on the podium, but he'll have to be in good form to keep this crowd in check. The meeting will be here in Toronto, and they are making allowances for up to 2500 people to attend. There are probably a few good movie scripts worth of events over the past year, and for the sake of Canada's pride, let's hope that Bill is up for a busy day.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mr. Pulver Goes to Jerusalem

Just got back today from the Pulver Israel VoIP Summit. The last few days have been quite a whirlwind, and it�s just hitting me now how much ground we covered during this trip.

Tuesday was probably the most interesting day, which included the group meeting Ehud Olmert, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor. Mr. Olmert has been friendly to VoIP for a long time, and Jeff simply wanted to thank him and show his appreciation for Israel�s contributions to VoIP since its inception 10 years ago. It�s a long way to go to say thanks, but the message was well received.

As circumstances would have it, our meeting with Mr. Olmert was held at the Knesset, which is located in Jersusalem. It felt pretty special entering this building where democracy unfolds for Israel. Our meeting was on the short side, as Mr. Olmert had to take part in a confidence vote being held that afternoon.

So, within minutes of our meeting and shaking hands with him, we are ushered into the Knesset gallery to watch the vote take place, with Mr. Olmert right in the middle of things, flanked by Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu. Talk about two degrees of separation. As with most things in Israeli politics, the vote was evenly split, and no clear consensus on what to do next. The balance of power remained unchanged, so we weren�t witness to history � just another day at the Knesset. Was still pretty worthwhile, though.

Later that evening was the VON Visionary Awards Ceremony at Jerusalem City Hall. This is where plaques were presented by to honor the companies making key contributions to VoIP. A total of 23 recipients were honored from four different companies - VocalTec, AudioCodes, Radvision, and IBM Israel. The ceremony was kicked off by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski. So within the course of a day, we kept pretty good company.

Wednesday was the Israel VoIP Summit, which consisted of presentations and panel discussions from a wide variety of leading Israeli IP players. Jeff led off with an overview talking about past, present and future perspectives on VoIP. The most notable idea was Jeff talking about bringing VON to Israel in 2006. That�s a great goodwill gesture, and shows the kind of confidence Jeff has in Israel to remain at the forefront of IP innovation. Next year in Jerusalem� or maybe Tel Aviv!

Other industry perspectives were provided by VocalTec, AudioCodes, Radvision, Jerusalem Capital and eDial, all of whom have a long history with VoIP. Scott Petrack of eDial (and Alcatel) provided particularly good insights about how VoIP has evolved. He also added some candid commentary about how Israeli companies have been very good at engineering products, but less successful at developing and bringing IP services to market. I thought this was a key point, especially in the context of what Israeli companies need to do to stay on leading edge of innovation. The afternoon was rounded out by a series of lively panel sessions on convergence and nextgen technologies.

The events of our trip are well documented it words and images on Jeff�s blog page, including our tourist outings to Masada, the Dead Sea, the historic parts of Jerusalem, and the Knesset. Here�s one shot from Jeff�s photos of our group overlooking old Jerusalem. If you can't view the whole photo, click on June 16 in the calendar in the upper right hand corner of this page. That path will get you the full size picture - apologies to Jonathan Askin, who is on the right side of this photo!


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Welcome to Tel Aviv - Are You Carrying Any Weapons?

Am not kidding - that's how I was greeted at the hotel earlier today. Tel Aviv is a wonderful place from what I've seen, but the realities of security in Israel make this a fact of life. It's manageable chaos here - on the road, it's every driver for himself, and nobody seems to stay in their lane, let alone signal. Not a good place to drive and talk on your cell!

I'm participating in Jeff Pulver's Israel mission, where our delegation is honoring Israel's contribution to VoIP since its inception 10 years ago.

There will be some high level meetings around the summit, and Jeff will no doubt be documenting the details and posting photos on his blog, so please check this out to see more about how things unfold.

I'll post again as the summit takes place.

Thursday, June 9, 2005

My Dinner With Andy/Supercomm Musings

My Dinner With Andre is a Louis Malle film I've always loved, and last night I had my version of it with Andy Abramson. Andy is a real IP thought leader, and I urge you to follow his blog, VoIP Watch.

Andy knows his wines, and we had a great dinner and talked about what we're seeing in the market, as well as what's happening at Supercomm. I've participated in a number of sessions, and seen the floor a few times. As expected, the traffic is strong, and it's pretty overwhelming with so many different tracks going on.

Time is short here at the show, but I wanted to post the big picture themes I'm seeing...

- IMS, IMS, IMS. Did I mention IMS? Just like Skype was on everybody's mind at VON Europe, IMS is the flavor of the moment at Supercomm. I attended briefings from Lucent and Sonus, and the vendors are all sharing their IMS stories. They all sound good, and both vendors and carriers are talking as if this is 100% the future. It's early yet, so it's hard to tell if this is for real, or if it's a stupendous sales job by the vendors. I think it's for real, and IMS seems to underscore just how much wireless has passed by wireline as the driver for the telcos.

- Video is really hot too, esp IPTV. This seems to be Microsoft's big entry point into IP, and IP TV is quite prominent here. The RBOC CEOs have been stating their plans here about getting into video, and it's clear they need to do this on a big stage so the MSOs don't miss the message.

- The Asian vendors are flexing their muscle here, esp ZTE and Huawei. When you enter the venue, you're bombarded with gigantic banner ads from the vendors we know and love - Cisco, Nortel, Lucent, Alcatel - can't miss these. But ZTE and Huawei aren't far behind, and you can't miss their booth displays. Both are on a fast track to break into the Western markets, and of course Huawei is already there with BT. Right now, they're building momentum with smaller wins, and the bigger ones are no doubt not that far away. I predict that next year - in whatever show that succeeds Supercomm - their exhibit spaces will be bigger than any of the big U.S. or European vendors.

- One more thought on IMS, and a subtle plug for Canada. The RBOCs have their work cut out as they don't have full ownership of their wireless arms. I've always found that a key difference with Canada, where the big ILECs - Bell and Telus - have 100% owned wireless operations. At the show it's really dawned on me how much harder it will be for the RBOCs to make IMS work for them as they try to integate with multiple networks - both wireline and wireless. Maybe once Bell and Telus figure this out, they can come and show the RBOCs. That would be interesting. And to think that SBC had a stake in Bell until recently. With the MSOs showing early signs of success with VoIP, the RBOCs certainly face some steep challenges ahead.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Supercomm News...Jays Rock Cubs and Love in the Fast Lane

Quick post from Supercomm in between the never-ending sessions!

Made my first visit to Wrigley Field last night, and lucky me, the Toronto Blue Jays were in town to play the Cubs. Strange matchup for sure, but it's all good when going to Wrigley!

I grew up with Fenway, but without a doubt, Wrigley is the next best thing. This is just baseball, folks. No video scoreboard, blaring music, endless replays, fan participation contests, kiss-cams. Heck, it's hard work just to find out the score of the game. You really have to follow the game and learn how to read the scoreboard. Gee, what a novel idea - come to a ball game and actually watch it right in front of you.

Love the park - it's so pure, and I never realized how deep it was to the corners - 358' at both ends. No cheap homers here.

Jays played a great game, so I can't complain. Another highlight was the 7th inning stretch, sung by.... Dave Cowens - Celtics great from the 70s when the Celts were the Celts - pre-Bird anyhow. What a treat. Only in Chicago!

On top of that, I shared a taxi with Charlotte Wolter, and we had the most fun ever in a cab. We had the pleasure of riding with Chubby Miller, who, if we believe everything he was telling us, is a legend here. His cab is platered with momentos of the fun stuff he does, and his celebrity as a local character. He's had a few people married in his cab, hence the name "Love in the Fast Lane". If you want the ride of your life with Chubby next time you're in town, let me know - I'll get you his number.

Back to work...

Jon at Wrigley.jpg

Wrigley twilight.jpg

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Canadian Telecom Summit - Day 3 - Skype Not Spoken Here

Today was the wrap up for the show, and for me, it had the best mix of speakers and topics. Highlights...

Panel session on consumer/SOHO use of VoIP - good insights there from Bell, Primus, Sprint and the newcomer Virgin Mobile. It was great to see them talking about MVNOs and the opportunity they see in prepaid wireless. It remains to be seen if Virgin can duplicate their success in the US with wireless up here, especially with 3 strong wireless carriers dominating the Canadian market, including their network partner, Bell Mobility. However, they sure bring some sex appeal to the game. Their Pres/CEO, Andrew Black gave some hilarious demos to illustrate the fun you can have with voice messages. He played one telling you that you have no messages - in a way that makes you feel like a lonely loser. Another was a morning wake up message with a reggae/Carribean vacation vibe. Then there was the "rescue ring". That's the call you initiate when your date is bombing out and you need an excuse to leave. This one played a woman - your girlfriend - screaming at you for being out with someone else - you get the idea.

The panel had mixed views on bundling - FINALLY - a session where not everybody agrees! Kevin Crull of Bell and Phil Hartling of Sprint were bullish, with Kevin citing over 550,000 Bell bundles sold as of Q1/05. He noted that churn reduction is real, and they seem to be having success using this to compete against Videotron's recent VoIP offering in Montreal. Conversely, Ted Chislett of Primus was more skeptical, saying that the only real advantages are lower price and a single bill. If the service provider can't properly deploy the bundle and support it from the beginning, it may not last, and the onus really falls on the service provider to deliver great service on all fronts. If one offering falters, the bundling benefit will not hold.

Darren Entwistle, Pres/CEO of Telus gave a no nonsense indictment of the CRTC's VoIP ruling during lunch. His basic message was the same as Michael Sabia's, but much more direct and tactical in terms of what the CRTC is doing right and wrong.

His basic thinking is that VoIP is different from PSTN, and the CRTC is simply not using appropriate metrics, such as the number of service providers in the market, or the market share held by ILECs for local access. These don't really apply in the IP world, which I agree with. The impact of wireless substitution or broadband voice providers like Vonage don't relate to this.

He's clearly a free markets thinker, and advocates open competition as the best way to provide choice to the consumer and stimulate innovation. He posits that if the CRTC treated cellular and Internet applications this way, why do it differently for telecom?

As you would expect from an ILEC, his view on the CRTC is that they have created an uneven playing field. It's one that penalizes the very carriers who have invested in building the networks Canadians have come to depend, and favors foreign-owned providers and cablecos.

Nothing really new here, but it was neat to see both Bell and Telus vent a bit at the same show. One gets the feeling that as direct as Darren was in his talk, he would have had a lot more to say behind closed doors. It's almost an afterthought to say his conclusion was that Telus will appeal the decision. What else can they do? Of course, they still have the customer base, so all is not lost. Hardly. The gloves are simply off now, and let the games begin.

Actually, he had another parting comment, which I thought was great. He noted that 2 CRTC officals had dissenting opinions on the ruling, and urged people to study them. Love it. I'm not plugged into the CRTC machinery, and it would have been great if he had told us how to access their opinions. Otherwise, I may never get around to it.

Skype - what's the story? Well, one thing really struck me as the conference went on. Kevin Crull of Bell briefly mentioned Skype during his panel today. At that point I realized that may have been the first time I heard a speaker refer to Skype at the show. I can count on my hand the number of times I heard things like Skype or SIP. I heard delegates talking about these things during the breaks, but hardly at all from the speakers.

I dunno. Having just come from VON Europe where you can't go more than 5 minutes without Skype coming up, I found that strange. Not good, not bad - just odd. I guess that reflects the nature of this show - it's not about the bleeding edge stuff - and that's ok. It's hard to complain when you get 3 days full of very senior people from the leading players in Canadian telecom. All in all, Mark and Michael put on a pretty good show, eh!

Next stop - Supercomm

Next week I'll be at Supercomm in Chicago. Should be a great show, and I'll be participating in a few sessions. So, if you're attending, here's where you can find me - among other places!

And if you can't find me, feel free to ping me....

The Business Case for Enhanced VoIP Services

The Business Case for VoIP in Tier 2/3 Markets

Services Over IP - VoIP and Beyond

Also, has the SIP Summit co-located at Supercomm. Hot on the heels of a great VON Europe show, this should be a great event for the SIP community. I certainly plan to be there when time allows!