New Delhi: Internet service providers Sify, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, and Asianet Dataline plan to launch ‘Internet phones’, akin to normal fixed-line phones, for their broadband customers and charge calls at rates ranging from zero to a few rupees for unlimited calls in the coming months.
“In three months, we expect to install around 2.25 lakh internet phones across the country free of charge,” says Naresh Ajwani, executive vice-president of Sify, the largest ISP not affiliated to any telecom provider in India.
The company, which has seen some of its traditional Internet market eaten up by competition from the telecom operators, will leverage the ultra low-cost model of Internet telephony to provide unlimited domestic phone services to all its broadband customers at Rs250 a month.
The broadband users will be able to call only other broadband customers and not to fixed-line or cellular phones, since Indian telecom rules currently prohibit such calls.
The government allows ISPs to originate a voice call on a computer or specially enabled Internet phones and terminate it on similar devices. With the prices of such phones falling to the Rs1,000-1,500 range and the number of broadband customers crossing the two-million mark this year, ISPs sense latent demand for such Internet phone services.
Sify has completed technology trials using 2,000 Internet phones in 110 towns.
The free installation of such internet phones is seen as the only way to get enough subscribers to call one another and enable spread of the service. “The key issue in the launch of such services is scale,” says Romil Shetty, director for telecom at consultancy KPMG in India. “Unless there are a large number of subscribers that you can call, people will not accept it.”
Another operator toying with the idea is MTNL, though for different reasons. The Delhi and Mumbai telecom operator, which already has a fixed-line service with 3.6 million subscribers, sees it as one of the value-adds that could prevent subscribers from switching to wireless operators.
With the rate difference between mobile and landline calls narrowing to almost zero, the company is looking upon Internet-based television and telephony to retain customers.
While it may not install Internet phones or adaptors at the homes of all its 4.3 lakh broadband subscribers at one go, its large and concentrated broadband subscriber base may make it easier to attract customers to the service.
“We might make it completely free for our broadband subscribers, at least in some of the schemes,” a senior MTNL executive said, asking he not be quoted because the plans were still being finalized.
Dataline, a division of the Kerala-based Asianet Cable Services, is the third ISP conducting Internet phone trials. “We are testing the phone service at a few customers’ premises and are ironing out technical issues,” says G. Sankaranarayanan, executive vice-president of Dataline.