Some VOIP carriers and equipment makers have figured out that one place to find customers is to go where they shop for high-tech toys: retail superstores. Notice the kiosks in your local Circuit City, staffed with carrier personnel, selling broadband and voice over broadband. They are typically selling cable or DSL broadband data service, local and long-distance voice service and the device you need to hook it all up. No truck rolls, no FedEx, perhaps not even a free access device with your contract (but usually a rebate). This business model was brought to my attention last fall by Paul Reitmeier, president of Siemens Subscriber Networks, a Siemens ICN (Information and Communication Networks) subsidiary that makes DSL modems and small-network routers.Vonage, the VOIP service provider with the highest subscriber count at 200,000, has followed this model by selling its terminal adapters, along with pointers to its sign-up Web site, in Best Buy, RadioShack and Circuit City. According to Vonage spokeswoman Brooke Shulz, subscribers can sign up for the service in the store right after purchase, or later at home. If you bought your adapter at, say, Radio Shack, the sign-up site would be www.vonage.com/radioshack. There, you will pick your rate plan and input your credit card number. Shulz says about 12 to 15 percent of its users are opting for the $40 or $50 small-business plans, which include a fax line in addition to either 1,500 monthly minutes or unlimited calling anywhere in the United States and Canada. Vonage sued AT&T over a VOIP product. Click here to read more. Vonage also sells through Amazon.com, and may have thought of the online retail channel first, but 8x8, a rival VOIP service provider, brought the idea to my attention in a joint July 8 announcement with Buy.com. This site, which claims to admit 300,000 browsers per day, features 8x8 as a Buy.com "premier partner." This simply means that a square display ad for the companys Packet8 VOIP services pops up at the bottom of any page of search results related to telephones, or even if you click the "cellular" product category. Click on it and read the all-you-can-dial pitch to buy the adapter for $69.95, with a $60 rebate. It offers only the $19.95 residential-rate plan, with low per-minute rates to other countries. Whats important here is that the e-customer doesnt need to know a thing about VOIP; he just needs to be interested in telephone service, cell phones or just telephones. Heres an opportunity to win a totally new convert. In contrast, type "telephone" into Amazons search engine, and you just get all sorts of telephones and books about telephones. You need someone savvy enough to at least type in "telephony" to get back a link to Vonage. Folks who know how to spellor pronouncethis word probably already score above average on the VOIP awareness test. Check out eWEEK.coms VOIP & Telephony Center at http://voip.eweek.com for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.
Siemens established a three-way retail kiosk partnership together with SBCthe regional Bell operating companyand with Best Buy and other electronics stores. Last fall, Reitmeier told me, it was yielding SBC 2,000 to 3,000 new subscribers per month, signing up for bundled DSL broadband and long-distance services.