The new service will mark a first tentative step into the so-called voice-over-IP (Internet Protocol) waters, being offered solely to businesses using their own private network for voice services. Similar services offered over the public network are being considered but aren't yet ready to be released, an executive said.
"We are clearly in the infancy and introduction stage of this," said Ihor Zyga, SBC's vice president of marketing for business services. "We're in the planning stage of how and when to move onto the broader IP stage."
Even if limited, the offering marks a significant step forward for the major carriers. Concerns about voice quality and reliability have kept most of the telecommunications giants from moving their corporate customers down this path. SBC's offering will provide an early benchmark of the service's reliability and the corporate world's demand for its capabilities.
Although the potential for cheaper service does exist with IP telephony, SBC said its offering won't be competing on cost, if only because the equipment is still relatively expensive. Instead, the company is stressing possible new applications, such as unified messaging. That's also been the selling point for other companies that have tested IP telephony service and IP phones, such as AT&T.
However, even SBC said the services aren't yet quite as reliable as the well-tested traditional telephone services--a tradeoff for those willing to sacrifice some quality for new capabilities.
"We are comfortable making this announcement, but we're going into this with our eyes open," Zyga said. "Those who are early adopters will have something to play around with. Other more conservative customers will wait."
The carrier said it expects to have several hundred million dollars in revenues from the services in the next few years but declined to offer specific estimates. Nor does the company have a timeline for offering voice-over-IP services to the consumer market.
The company will use equipment from Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks for the business services and will work with those companies to develop future generations of the technology, it said.