TORONTO — Bell Canada is using the same network infrastructure that services its enterprise customers to deliver a consumer voice-over-IP offering that will allow calls to follow users to work and back again.

The company on Thursday took the wraps off Digital Voice, a $40/month offering that will be available at first to Toronto and the surrounding region, then Ontario and Quebec. An IP telephony service Bell launched in three Quebec communities earlier this year, meanwhile, will be renamed Digital Voice Lite and will be marketed primarily as a second home phone line for $34/month. There are no immediate plans to include either service as part of a bundled offering, executives said.

Digital Voice is being offered as a sort of managed service through a Nortel softswitch off the Bell network, said Ron Close, president of Bell VoIP. This is in some ways an extension of what Bell has been offering to IP telephony customers in corporations, he said. “This is really pushing ATA functionality to the edge of the network,” he said.

Close said Bell intends to make up for its late entry into the consumer VoIP space by trying to persuade consumers Digital Voice will be easier to implement than technology offered by cable companies. Recent CRTC regulations have allowed these firms, including Rogers Cable and Videotron, to move aggressively into a market considered the domain of carriers or specialty VoIP companies such as Vonage.

Digital Voice won’t require a Bell technician to visit a customer location, Close said, nor will it require users to configure routers or snip away at in-house wiring. The complexity of installation has hampered the VoIP market, he added.

“Shame on us if for some reason we force our customers to go to the bad guys,” Close said, referring to the cable firms. “Bringing this out took looking at our customers and the way we delivered our services differently.”

While Bell’s offering may be priced at a slight premium compared to its competitors, Close said he believes customers will be swayed by features, rather than simply costs. Digital Voice includes the ability to forward voice mail messages to an e-mail inbox, an online account manager to view call records through a Web site, and Call Forwarding Plus. The latter feature allows users to program up to 10 phones, including their cell phone, office phone or home phone, and have calls travel to each of them. For example, a customer might leave the office and have all calls routed to a cell phone.

“You’ll be able to have those phones ring at the same time or sequentially,” Close said. In other words, if no one picked up at one location, the call would follow the user until it found her. 

Jeff Leiper, an analyst with research firm the Yankee Group based in Ottawa, called Digital Voice an exciting validation of convergence trends that have been happening in the past year. 

“I think the key will be the presence-based applications, the follow me-type stuff,” he said. “That customer self-service, the ability to manage a rich feature set on a portal – Canadians have been trained to use that by online banking.” 

Bell is still in the process of appealing the CRTC decision that would regulate VoIP in a manner similar to traditional phone service. Last month, it launched an effort with several other carriers to urge the federal cabinet to overturn the decision.


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