Wal-Mart Ventures Into VoIP


The retail giant Monday put its considerable weight and consumer reach behind the IP communications market by adding Skype VoIP equipment and pre-paid Skype service cards to its shelves.

The deal foists VoIP into the mainstream spotlight and has the potential to expose the Skype service to a huge crop of potential new users.

Wal-Mart has opened Skype-branded sections in the electronics departments of 1,800 stores across the United States, where it will be selling Skype-certified hardware including headsets, Webcams and handsets from vendors such as Plantronics, Philips and Logitech. Customers can use the hardware to supplement their Skype service, which offers free Internet VoIP calls between members and low-cost calls to other phone lines.

In addition, Wal-Mart is the first and only U.S. retailer to offer pre-paid Skype cards for the VoIP service provider's domestic and international calling plans. One card offers a three-month subscription to the Skype Unlimited Calling Plan, which enables users to place unlimited Skype calls to landlines and cell phones within the U.S. and Canada for $8.85. Another $20 pre-paid card can be used to place international calls at rates as low as 2.1 cents per minute.

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"The Skype hardware and pre-paid cards are a great fit with Wal-Mart because they offer long-term money-saving solutions at the right time for many customers -- parents, grandparents, college students and military families," Kevin O'Connor, vice president and general merchandise manager at Wal-Mart, said in a statement.

While Skype is primarily known as a consumer-focused service, it also offers features for business users, including its Business Control Panel, an online tool for managing multiple accounts.

While there is a certain segment of the SOHO market that could be a fit for Skype, it isn't posing much threat in the small business market at this point, solution providers said.

"I'm not too worried about Skype," said Raymond Benoit, president of RTM Communications, a solution provider in Merrimack, N.H. "Anybody with five or more phones [that wants a hosted service] should go with a service from a carrier ... Five or below can do whatever they want, but they'll be on their own. They won't be getting support from Wal-Mart."

Lack of support is one of the key factors that will keep Skype and other hosted VoIP services out of the business market, said Ed Fineran, president of Atlantech, a solution provider in Silver Spring, Md.

"For general business use, the problem we see with a Skype or a Vonage is that they cannot guarantee any quality of service between the end-user and the switch," Fineran said. "They'll tell you to call your ISP. If you call your ISP and tell them you're having a problem with Skype or Vonage, they'll say, 'Well, your Internet works. Have a nice day.' There's no responsibility."