Thursday, September 22, 2005

VoIP windfall on ofws

BIZLINKS By Rey Gamboa, The Philippine Star

Even before the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) could finally issue the guidelines on the policy covering Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), overseas call rates have been dropping like manna from heaven. And our OFWs are gleefully on the phone now.

From a standard rate of $0.40 a minute, calls rates went down initially by half. Now, giant players Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and Globe Telecom Inc. are saying they are bringing international long distance rates to as low as $0.05.

But hold your horses. Even before we applaud these giant telecoms for giving away huge discounts to subscribers, we have to be clear on two things. One, the discounted rate is available only to subscribers of their Internet brand, which is DSL (Digital Subscribed Line) for PLDT and Globelines Broadband for Globe. So if you are not a DSL or Broadband customer, you can’t take advantage of the promo.

Second, why only now? As with the promos that sprouted after Sun Cellular set off a price war with its 24/7 plan, the giant telecommunication companies are telling us that they can in fact bring prices down in the face of aggressive competition. Otherwise, they will keep on charging us those ridiculous rates.

So now, the big players, Smart and Globe, realizing that the floodgates have been opened for ISP service providers to participate in the potentially huge VoIP service market, cut IDD rates by as much as 88 percent.
Killing Budding Competitors
Since they failed to block the opening of the VoIP market and to stop the policy of deregulating overseas calls, it looks like the telcom giants are trying to abort any new VoIP player even before this is born. VoIP is an Internet technology that would allow us to make cheaper calls anywhere in the world. Through this new technology, voice and or voice-messaging applications can now be done via the Internet rather than the conventional switched telephone network. With NTC finally ruling that VoIP is a value-added service that is not limited to telephone companies with Congressional franchises and government licenses, telcos now will just have to fight the order outside of the NTC or those firms planning to operate VoIP even before they can arm themselves. As they are doing now.

That is not to say the telcos are not considering going to the courts to stop the NTC from implementing VoIP. As of this writing, though, no case has been filed, and so we just hope that these telcos come to their senses and support a policy that will truly benefit consumers.

That the entry of VoIP should drastically cut overseas rates is proven already with the way IDD charges have dropped even before the NTC could fully implement the open-door policy for other VoIP service providers.
Eight Million Reasons
We need not stress the importance of driving the cost of overseas charges down. We have more than eight million reasons why the cost of calls to the United States, the Middle East, Italy, and Hong Kong should go down.

Our OFWs left about 30 million families, relatives, and friends here who are eager to hear the sound of the voices of their loved ones, or better yet to see them as they speak. Through VoIP, videoconferencing can be done at much cheaper rates. Even text messaging is cheaper through IP, according to industry experts.

There are companies already offering overseas texting for P5 per message. This is one-third of the cost if you would use a regular mobile phone here to send a message to an overseas cell.

At $0.05 to $0.10 a minute or roughly to P2.80 to P5.60 for every minute of overseas call, families of our OFWs would be encouraged to start calling instead of waiting for those abroad to call.
Mitigating Social Cost
Communications could play a big role in improving the plight of the OFWs and their families here. We all know about Filipinos abroad sending more than $7 billion each year to their families, an amount which not only feeds their loved ones but also sustains the Philippine economy.

But there is a corresponding social cost to the huge remittances. Fathers and mothers, sometimes even both parents, leaving their children, mostly in their formative and sensitive teenage years are terribly vulnerable to strong influences of social ills like drugs and premarital sex.

Husbands or wives leaving for abroad wake up one day to find out that the spouse had gone astray, adding more to the children’s confusion. Husbands or wives giving in to the biting loneliness overseas, eventually find themselves in the arms of a lover. While cheap IDD calls will not solve all these problems, it can help prevent some of them from happening.
Clearing All Hurdles
Now that NTC had cleared the hurdle for other players/service providers to come in, the Commission should release as soon as possible the guidelines for VoIP so that the public would be aware of various types and scope of services available and the operating standards required.

The NTC must also initiate an information campaign that would make even simple folks like you and me understand how VoIP operates. As new businesses crop up in anticipation of demand for VoIP services, the general public has to be educated on how to distinguish the appropriate service to use, and how to compare and select the best price package for their needs.

NTC has to act fast as enterprising groups are now jumping into the market targeting the huge OFW market. For instance, a new player calling itself Bayani Card Inc. had launched the Bayani Card for overseas calls and texting, and is aggressively enticing OFW families to use their service.

As the vanguard of this potentially lucrative hi-tech sector, it is incumbent on NTC to ensure that the not-too technically inclined users do not become innocent victims to service offerings that do not deliver as promised.

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