BY ANTHONY CRUPI The sustainability of VoIP may be the deciding factor in the newly erumpent turf war between cable and the Bells, but it’s too soon to tell. VoIP is still in its voice-cracking pubescent phase, and has a ways to go before it can reach its full potential, which is to become a workaday bundled offering. Call it the filler app. Thus far, the skirmish has been limited to the filing of documents in the offices of certain state regulatory agencies. In late July, the North Carolina Utilities Commission formally approved Time Warner Cable’s application to provide phone service throughout the Tar Heel State, much to the chagrin of POTS carriers such as BellSouth, MCI and Alltel. These and other Bells had separately petitioned the NCUC in an attempt to derail TWC’s VoIP plans, citing the possibility of disruption in existing service and concerns over regulation. The NCUC’s dismissal of the Bells’ complaints officially opened the door for TWC to have VoIP deployed in two of its four Carolina divisions before the year is out. The worries that fueled the flurry of petitions hasn’t prevented other Bells from exploring their VoIP options. Both WorldCom and Sprint have had IP-based voice services up and running for the better part of a year. What’s more, the RBOCs are revisiting the issue of providing video service, by either making side deals with the dish guys (as is the case with SBC and Qwest) or pursuing the fiber-to-the-home initiative (à la Verizon). As both industries begin to make inroads into the other’s core competencies, the distinctions between the two sides will begin to blur, says Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst based in Atlanta. “The Bells are jumping into video because cable has been jumping into telephone service,” Kagan says. “To the customer, they’re all going to start to look very much alike.” Given the cable industry’s headlong rush into consolidation, this should make very little difference to those on the consumer side of the pipe. “Customers are going to want bundles, and if you can’t offer bundles, you can’t compete,” Kagan says. “There will always be barriers, but nothing will get in the way [of VoIP]. Cable can’t back out now.”

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