International phone number (DID) provisioning service Voxbone scored big in 2010.
The company is the creator of iNum, a service that allows VoIP carriers the ability to offer free phone numbers in any of 50 nations, all on a single area code—883. Voxbone revenues rose 38 percent from 2009, while minutes of use for inbound traffic grew to 2.1 billion, up 40 percent.
Company executives say these successes may be reflective of growing trends in the industry. With the corporate world looking to keep down the cost of telecom, “there is as big use of local numbers, in a traffic flow that is largely IP,” said Sebastien d’Ursel, chief financial officer and former COO of Brussels-based Voxbone.
This desire to contain costs has in turn driven an overall demand for IP-based international calling. A report by TeleGeography estimates cross-border traffic routed by Skype to have grown by roughly 45 billion minutes in 2010.
In addition to these fiscal considerations, there also are technical forces driving the desire for local phone numbers. In particular, the migration of phone systems from traditional models to IP-based systems needs to be transparent to the end user. “People need to be sure they can reach people on one network or the other network without thinking about it, and the phone numbers are the key identifier in this process,” d’Ursel said. In this regard, services like Voxbone “really are acting as the essential bridge between the two worlds.”
It has been no simple task for Voxbone to build that bridge and extend its reach.
The difficultly lies partly in the mechanics of assigning phone numbers. “It’s quite complex in the technical aspect to interconnect with all the local carriers,” d’Ursel said.
Even more challenging though are the legal hurdles, a situation faced by many international telecom aspirants. Each nation has its own governing body to oversee telephony; each has its own regulatory environment. In many cases, it takes considerable effort to leap this hurdle. In others, the hurdle just can’t be leapt, at least not yet.
Take for instance China and India. “We have found it extremely difficult to add those countries to our coverage,” d’Ursel said. In some nations the governments hold tight control over the telecom industry, and they may have no love for outside competition. In other cases Voxbone worries that the rules may be subject to arbitrary change, leaving users out in the cold.
It probably can be done, but it’s slow going. “We are in close contact with the regulators there, but it is taking some time and it’s a pity because we have lots of demand over there,” d’Ursel said.
Banking on that pent-up desire, Voxbone has been spreading the gospel of inbound local international numbers. The concept might be new to consumers, but so far that hasn’t mattered. “Since we are not targeting the consumers directly, the good thing is that we don’t have to educate them. They don’t really care what the technology is behind it: What they want is to be able to talk to other people,” d’Ursel said.
“The people who do care are the ISPs, because they know they can provide a traditional service in a cheaper way,” he said. There ought to be a win-win in that cost-savings model. “Of course they are keeping part of the savings for themselves, but they also need to compete on pricing, and this service allows them to offer these calls at much cheaper pricing than traditional carriers. That’s the same reason Skype is doing so well.”
Voxbone is not alone is working its niche. Big global carriers like Global Crossing, iBasis and Bezeq also are in the game, sometimes as competitors but often as collaborators. These big players turn to Voxbone, not because they are unable to provide similar inbound numbers, but rather because it is easier to let someone else do the heavy lifting on the IP side.
Founded in 2005, Voxbone claims it is ideally suited to carry that weight, insofar as it has based its operations on IP from the start, rather adding on an internet-based capability after the fact.
“We are benefiting from an all-IP network from the beginning, which means we can automate everything and simplify control for our customers, who can now configure everything on line,” d’Ursel said.
Looking ahead, d’Ursel said Voxbone will seek to extend its ability to port phone numbers, something it can only do in 17 of the 50 nations in which it operates at present. That’s a key element for anyone working in international telecom, d’Ursel. If consumers can’t take their phone numbers with them, they are unlikely to come along for the ride.