AOL Says Its VoIP Service Will Make a Dent

By making its new broadband telephony service both simple and slick, AOL thinks it will affect the VoIP industry in the same way the giant service provider helped fuel the growth of the internet a decade ago.

AOL made “instant messaging” a household term.

Now the huge internet service provider — more than 22 million across the country use the service to go online and the company's AIM instant messaging client is used more than any other — aims to make Internet telephony just as familiar.

“We think we have the opportunity with voice service to make the same impact AOL did for internet service,” says Jim Tobin, AOL's Vice President of Voice Strategy.

AOL has kept earlier promises to enter the market with a $39.99 monthly (the company is offering a $10 price break, to $29.99, for the first six months) offering designed for mass market consumers.

“Mass market consumers — our market — want something different than early adopters,” says Tobin. “When you're talking to mainstream consumers you better make it simple. They want it to be easy-to-use, secure and safe. We have the scale to handle that level of investment.”

Tobin points to the service provider's 24/7 support staff that is “trained in all permutations of how the service works. We also have an 8,000-strong service organization. This gives us the tools to offer the same ease-of-use and security as we offer the AIM market.”

AOL is definitely building on the AIM model for its VoIP offering.

“The whole AIM market is based on instant gratification,” Tobin explains.“We want to bring that model to telephony. It's an opportunity to marry the two communication environments into a new hybrid that combines the best of both models.”

The service's online control panel, the Phone Service Dashboard, is where it all comes together.

“With more and more forms of communication — voicemail, email, alerts, SMS, cell phones — the greater the need for some unified control environment,” says Tobin.

The dashboard lets users view both voicemails — including cell phone voicemail — and emails and billing statements, change calling plans, manage calls, and click-to-call functionality that is integrated with address books. Online presence awareness is also integrated, letting users initiate online chat by clicking on the online presence indicator. Callers can be added to the subscriber's address book simply by clicking on the number.

The dashboard also integrates AOL White Pages, AOL Yellow Pages and MapQuest to get addresses, phone numbers and directions.

One of the slickest features of the dashboard is its ability to handle calls on the fly. When a call is received the dashboard shows an alert that allows user to click on a menu option for handling the call. For example, they can re-route it to another phone number, add a new number to redirect the call to — for example, a hotel room, play a recorded message, or ignore the call.

The service also allows users to hear email through a conventional telephone by dialing “*AOL.”

These are features, AOL believes, will attract new customers to its member community.

As part of the package, new customers get AOL membership. The company intends to offer a non-member version of the VoIP service within the next few months as well, according to Tobin. A soft phone and an internet telephone are also in the works.

Consistent with it's mass market approach, AOL is not going to be a BYOB service. Initially the service will provide subscribers one of two customized ATAs — Linksys and Netgear — that are locked to the AOL service. The company is talking to other equipment suppliers as well, says Tobin but only the Linksys and Netgear equipment are “certified and ready to go.”

The firmware in the boxes has been modified, Tobin says, “to deliver the best call quality by taking advantage of the Sonus softswitches and the underlying [Level3] network infrastructure. We have done some things with Sonus to deliver the split-second integration to provide the one-click functionality from the Dashboard.”

The combination terminal adapter and broadband router also lets customers enable a home network if they don't already have one. The Netgear equipment includes a wireless access point, which Tobin believes is going to be popular with subscribers.

Tobin is confident that with AOL Internet Phone Service the company can replay its earlier success.

“We believe the time is right to do it again. It's going to take the same approach — making it simple and easy to use and safe and secure — to make Internet telephony as mass market as instant messaging.”