Putting the byte into phone booths

IT HAS been a year since the Government legalized Internet telephony, paving the way for highly affordable cross-country communications. Despite its obvious advantages, the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology has catered mainly to PC users and a more IT savvy group of Corporate consumers.

Now, in a bid to push the technology further to the masses, Internet services group, Net4India on Wednesday launched four Internet telephony booths on Habbibullah Road, T. Nagar. Similar to PCO booths, these call centres will use Voice over Internet technology to reach fixed as well as mobile lines in nearly 200 countries.

Apart from the cost factor (coming at an affordable Rs. 4.95 per minute to the United States), the `Phone wala' call centres will be a boon mainly to the non PC-user who is not comfortable with headphones or even going through the hassle of configuring an account online. "The idea is to take the technology to even those who do not have access to PC. As the first part of our launch, we have set up 125 Internet tele centres across the country, with 40 in Chennai alone," said Jasjit Sawhney, CEO, Net4India, who was in the city to inaugurate the call centres.

Last year alone, Net4India claims that more than 45,000 consumers in Chennai have used their kiosks in the city to keep in touch with the near and dear ones. More than 65 per cent of the calls were made to U.S., U.K. and Singapore. The company's network has been strengthened through a tie-up with international IP communications network, Deltathree Limited.

Since their launch in April 2002, the company has also sold more than three lakh pre-paid `Phone wala' Net telephony cards. These cards can be used on PCs, where the subscriber can use the dial-up or broadband connections at home to make international calls bypassing the ISD facility on phone lines. This eventually results in savings of more than 80 per cent on international call charges.

Internet Service Provider (ISP) Satyam Infoway have been offering their own Internet telephony package, `Way2talk' through their 800 `iWay' Internet kiosks. Sify claims that superior technology through 13 International gateways gives them the edge when it comes to quality of service. The company also offers prepaid cards that can be bought at their iWays and online shopping.

What is more, Satyam's iWay network is already a well-developed and distinct brand identity, penetrating even residential areas.

Currently, Satyam has on its calling list more than 155 countries and there are plans to add more as the demand keeps increasing for Internet telephony. Apart from the Government clearance for the technology, the major boost for the sector has come by way of heavily slashed hardware prices. Routers, IP devices, high-speed modems are today cheaper than they were ever before. Today, CISCO brand IP devices are available at Rs. 10,000 mark.

With broadband technology now coming within the reach of domestic consumers, the Internet Service Providers foresee a huge market for Net telephony in the years to come. In fact, the hike in fixed line following TRAI's recent ruling has made dial-up connections almost as costly as Internet through cable.

The projections by a private company, iLocus, on the first anniversary of legalisation of VoIP and deregulation of International Long Distance (ILD) market pegs Internet telephony to capture 61 per cent of all ILD by the year 2007. From April to December 2002 alone, more than 220 million minutes of ILD were shipped over VoIP equipment, accounting for a six per cent market share.

By Karthik Subramanian