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BT squares up to Google Voice with Ribbit Mobile

It's all internetty but also very telecommy

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Industry comment Carriers may be watching Google Voice with trepidation, especially as it goes mobile, but one unlikely telco is determined to make sure the search giant does not have it all its own way. British Telecom has extended its Ribbit internet telephony platform to cellphones (despite having no mobile network of its own) with the unveiling of Ribbit Mobile.

This is a cloud-based service that combines internet voice, smart call routing and voicemail transcription. It builds on a proof of concept mobile service, Amphibian, which Ribbit developed in 2007 before it was part of BT. As with the disruptive Google Voice, users can transfer calls from an existing mobile number and as well as gaining the features of more open IP telephony platforms, can also forward calls to Skype, MSN or Google Talk Accounts.

The strategy is not just about BT trying to become an open web services provider and take on Google - an approach adopted by some other carriers seeing their walled gardens and customer control collapsing. It is also about injecting new value into the existing voice platforms and deriving new revenues and customer bases from an apparently declining market. Its broader aim is to merge its voice business with the web and push ahead of Google and Skype in also adding value to the mobile voice experience.

BT acquired Ribbit for $105m last year and made its founder Ted Griggs CTO of BT Voice. Ribbit had been set up a year earlier with the goal of being "Silicon Valley's Telephone Company". With uncharacteristic prescience, the deal showed BT taking positive action ahead of most carriers round the world to face up to the collision of the fixed and mobile voice business with the internet.

Voice still accounts for the huge bulk of carrier revenue and gives them greater account control than the open web, but operators have to support alternative communications methods and vehicles.

Ribbit Mobile leverages BT's core software platform, network infrastructure and APIs to deliver an advanced call management service that combines a user's phones, a web interface and mobile apps (running first on the iPhone and BlackBerry, assuming Apple doesn't block the service as it did Google Voice). Ribbit Voice is available for a free trial and later will cost $30 per month for the full offering.

Its features are more wide-ranging than Google's, including 'Voice 2.0' elements like multiple ring and web-based calling. It aims to be a full platform, with the APIs open to third party developers to extend the services - BT hopes one of the first results of this will be an Android client.

At the back end, there is integration with BT and Level 3 networks, and the ability to terminal calls on VoIP systems like Skype and Google Talk. "We don't talk a lot about it, but our network is really telco grade," Griggs said in an interview, pointing to the support for the UK emergency service 999. "The back end of what Ribbit does is very 'telecommy' and 'Internetty' - we bring the two together."

He added: "What used to be a sacred cow, voice, is becoming just another app on the mobile phone. What voice service you use and what you do with it have become up for grabs."

Copyright © 2009, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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