Skype has sought to reassure its business customers that they can trust it in the future, despite the withdrawal of thousands of central London numbers from its SkypeIn users.
Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk on Tuesday, Skype's vice president of telecoms, Stefan Oberg, shed further light on the circumstances that led to the VoIP company withdrawing the numbers, and insisted that Skype tried to defend its customers' "best interests" throughout.
SkypeIn is a paid-for function of the largely free Skype internet communications service. It provides the user with a geographic telephone number — one starting 01 or 02 — which gives the impression that the user is located in the area of their choice.
In late November, Skype pulled around 10,000 SkypeIn numbers that used the 0207 prefix — a move which caused outrage among business customers whose marketing literature and business cards used the number to imply a central London business location. Many customers were exasperated by Skype's subsequent offer to them of a new SkypeIn number which was free for a period but not prefixed with 0207.
Initial reports suggested that the withdrawal was simply the result of a commercial dispute between Skype and its supplier of 0207 numbers, GCI Telecom — itself supplied by a company called Gamma Telecom. It appeared that the price of the numbers had risen and Skype was unwilling to pay what was demanded of it.
However, according to Oberg, there was more to the story. "It wasn't only the money," said Oberg. "We were forced to come to the conclusion that we did [arrive at]. It was a very complicated matter, and we had our customers' best [interests] as our top priority. This has never happened before. We have numbers in many markets and from many different providers. We have good agreements in place with big, reliable partners for our numbers in general. This was one exception."
Oberg explained that the relationship between Skype and GCI Telecom had "started many years ago when Skype was in a different situation."
"It is unfortunate that it came back to hit us and our customers now," Oberg said. "We were running out of numbers in London and we went to one of our largest and most trusted suppliers… who pointed us in one direction and asked us to work with a local partner in the UK. Our trusted partner was in talks [regarding] an acquisition here in England. They thought it would conclude shortly. The acquisition failed, but by that time we had already sold the numbers to our customers. We were [then] in a situation where we had the numbers, but not a proper partner, nor a properly regulated [in terms of the commercial agreement] relationship."
"What normally happens is we work only with trusted, reliable large companies, and we do due diligence before engaging in negotiations," said Oberg. "We have standards terms and conditions regarding how we buy SkypeIn numbers, and service levels we expect from our partners. We then test the service technically, very thoroughly. In this case, that did not happen properly. We concluded the best thing for our customers was to offer them a number from a reliable partner."
Oberg, who claimed that he and many others at Skype had themselves lost 0207 numbers as a result of the incident, said that Skype was "doing all we can to make sure it doesn't happen again" and had tried its best to contact the majority of affected customers personally, albeit with only a month's notice.
Many telecoms services offer business customers a service level agreement (SLA) to give assurance that this sort of thing will not happen. However, argued Oberg, Skype is "clearly not a telco" and is therefore unable to offer an SLA. "We are a piece of software," he said. "To use it you need a lot of other components that we have no control over — a PC, other software, network provider and so on. We cannot control that whole chain, which is one reason why we cannot do an SLA. For some customers, an SLA for voice can be very important, but customers need to make that choice. We are not a replacement for your phone system. We are a complement."
Oberg suggested that Skype had much to offer business users in terms of functionality. "You get presence, great audio quality, video, IM, file transfer, conference calling; it is possible to send SMS; and it is possible to have numbers in many countries," he said. "A small UK company can have a number in the US, one in Hong Kong, one in Sweden and so on. This is something a telco cannot offer. You can use Skype from your mobile in the UK — free communications from the office to mobile workers and back. Your number and service travel with you. Those are great benefits on their own, and they are for free."
Oberg hinted at new features which will shortly arrive for business users. "There are a couple of areas we are working on improving. One relates to buying and managing credits. Companies want to buy credits in larger amounts [the current limit is €250 (£180) at a time] and distribute them automatically to individuals, and follow that up with statistics. Companies also want to get an invoice, so we are also building that."
Another issue which may concern business users of VoIP is the Enum registry, which aims to unite not only the various VoIP providers — referred to by some as "islands" due to their lack of interconnection with each other — but the entire VoIP and traditional telephony worlds.
Asked whether Skype had considered opening up its famously closed communications protocols, Oberg claimed that there had been no customer demand for interconnection. "[Customers] are not saying they would love to call a VoIP provider on a different network," he said. "Customers are asking for better video and better conference calling. If it is something that customers really ask for, we would consider it, but it is very easy for anyone to get on the island."
"In order to provide richness, we have to create our own protocols," Oberg added. "SIP and the standard [VoIP] protocols simply can't do it."