VoIP is forcing its way into the public consciousness. On laptops, in small businesses and through advertising campaigns, Voice-over-Internet Protocol's status can be compared with that of the internet in the mid-1990s. It is ready for take-off.
VoIP is essentially the use of internet technology for low-cost phone calls. For the carriers, such as BT, it means cheaper infrastructure.
Industry experts claim the simple premise of putting calls across a digital connection will eventually become the telephony service of choice. It is not surprising, then, that big players are adding VoIP to their armoury.
Last week Microsoft bought its second VoIP firm, Media-Streams, to add to last month's purchase of Teleo. News International has been linked with making investments in the technology, and eBay recently bought market leader Skype.
So VoIP is turning into a major industry – and one that will require PR to develop. Carrot Communications founder Richard Houghton, who works with IT services firm Atos Origin, warns: 'VoIP has been overhyped and overpromised. It's time to show its real benefits.'
Evolving technology VoIP promises the kind of extra services that only digital technology can provide. These include being able to
'attach' documents to phone calls, like one would with email, and advanced billing. 'On a basic level it's easy to understand. It's just a box of tricks you plug into your broadband connection,' says Rene Millman, news editor of tech title SC Magazine. But he concedes: 'Some of the technical elements may be more difficult to promote.'
Early campaigns on the benefits of VoIP appear to have been overshadowed by media reports of poor service and security threats. 'Because it's over the internet, it's open to hackers,' says Millman. 'That puts people off.'
The market, he says, is at a turning point: it is hung up on negative stories and needs to trigger mass recognition of the benefits. 'It's the network effect,' Millman explains. 'The more people use it, the more valuable it will be. Companies need to have this explained to them so they can see the benefit of getting in early.'
VoIP has matured to overcome problems with sound quality, and
encryption ensures a respectable level of security. Promotion of the technology is hindered by lack of understanding among the general public.
Silicon.com editor Tony Hallett says: 'VoIP is cheap and flexible. But the message is being muddled.'
One hurdle is the umbrella term of 'VoIP' that defines three types of internet telephony. At one end there is the technology that kids and geeks are using on their home PCs, such as Skype (essentially a broadband connection with a phone attached). In the middle are the dedicated services, such as Vonage – which last week appointed Inferno Communications (PRWeek, 4 November) – aimed at businesses and home users. The other end is the domain of the telecoms industry itself, which is an established user of VoIP.
'It's not a message you can get across by just advertising,' says Hallett. 'Does the man on the street know that every phone call he makes already uses IP? If he did, it could help erase the fear
But getting businesses on board might not be quite so easy. 'Security and quality can be demonstrated quickly,' says Houghton. 'But VoIP hasn't changed the world yet. Businesses need to be shown real benefits.'
Under budgetary pressures, the phrase 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' is one many businesses live by. The problem in pushing VoIP is that there is nothing wrong with the current telephone system.
'An international company will not migrate to VoIP straight away. It would cost too much,' says Houghton.
He suggests that initially targeting smaller companies might make sense because they are more likely to adopt new technology.
The rise of Skype
It is the progress of Skype that has largely driven the industry.
'Skype had brilliant PR because it could say it was free and everybody loves things that are free, whether it's completely true or not,' says BT senior media relations manager Mike Jarvis.
In April, Skype passed the 100 million download mark, before being
purchased by eBay in October. It is the clear leader in the home-user market. 'Technology moves very quickly,' says Jarvis. 'We're spending £10bn on internet telephony and combating Skype directly.'
BT Communicator, BT's rival to Skype, is being promoted with cheaper international rates and quality of service at the forefront of campaigns.
To snatch market share from Skype and Vonage, rivals will need to think on their toes and deliver a clear message. 'PR is the only medium that can explain VoIP properly,' says Lewis PR senior account executive Rachel Hodgson, who works on Equant's VoIP service. 'There's even confusion between Skype and [business market leader] Vonage. The benefits are difficult to get across when the audience doesn't understand what the service does.'
Education is vital. VoIP will be big business if it can communicate what the technology means for users. And that is good news for the PR industry.
Of course, the situation would be helped if the technology had more of a catchy name.
'No one understands what "VoIP" means. It's very geeky,' says Jarvis.
'We use the terms "voice-over-internet" or "voice-over-broadband", otherwise people will reject the technology out of hand. I mean, who responds to something called VoIP?'