Jeff Pulver is fascinated with Texas Hold’em but he’ll be the first one to tell you he has the world’s worst poker face.
But that doesn’t bother this 43-year-old ham radio enthusiast who has placed his biggest bet on Voice over IP
After years of building his reputation, Pulver is now best known for his VoIP trade shows as well as founding Free World Dialup (FWD), the VON Coalition, LibreTel, WHP Wireless, pulverinnovations, Digisip, and co-founding VoIP provider Vonage.
Last year, Pulver testified before the federal government after the FCC identified FWD as an unregulated information service. Now called “the Pulver decision”, the ruling broke new ground in clarifying that computer-to-computer VoIP service is not a telecommunications service. End-to-end IP communications services would now be spared from the regulation under the Communications Act.
Internetnews.com sat down with Pulver at his recent show in San Jose, Calif. to talk about opportunities in the
industry, matching social networks with VoIP, why today’s teens are more prepared to use VoIP than we are, and the similarities between Texas Hold’em and Voice on the Net.
Q: How has your vision of VoIP changed for you since you first became involved with it?
In the last couple years it has been an amazing ride. A year ago in Santa Clara we had a total of about 3,100 people at our Spring VON show. A year later it is 6,000 plus attendees. I’m very humbled.
Q: VoIP has been in the news lately because of the port blocking by some ISPs. Do you see the barrier to adoption a political issue or a technical one?
It’s all technology. What we are talking about is a concept that the FCC had been talking about for some time and that is Net freedoms. In the United States, citizens should have the right to choose the broadband service provider that they want, the right to attach devices to their service and the right to choose the application that they want.
The reality in this new world is that anybody can be a service provider simply by putting a server somewhere and selling subscriptions without the need for infrastructure. In the old school days, if you were a wireless service provider or a PAX
[private automatic exchange] provider you owned the network end-to-end. In the world of IP, you just need to have the application service and that is it.
There are a lot of opportunities for people to discriminate against that. So if you are an cable service and you are using a third-party service that you subscribe to and the cable operator productizes your packets so that you have more packet loss than anyone else, that would be discriminatory and should not be tolerated.
Q: Talk about some of the different ways that VoIP is changing the way we operate globally. What are people interested in VoIP looking at now?
I have this company called LiberTel, which is a application service provider that I created to commercialize Free World Dialup to at least generate revenue. And I came up with this idea last year to start selling inbound telephone numbers, not outbound service but actual DIDs (Direct Inbound Dialing numbers) in various countries.
We have an inventory of telephone numbers from St. Petersburg, Russia, from Brazil, from Australia, the U.K, Israel and the United States. So if you have an IP phone or a soft client, you can actually have a telephone number. It’s a very popular service among expats. So if you are living abroad, you can have a local phone number that you can give someone and makes the local number ring wherever you want as well.
I’ve got my own number block.
Q: You do?
We filed some paperwork in Washington and my specification was that I would not be a certificated carrier, so LiberTel is not a carrier of record. What we found by reading the law very carefully is that other people like us can apply for telephone numbers. We were assigned the first non-geographic telephone numbers in the United States for use in VoIP services. We were given inside the 500 number block, the VON prefix. So 1-500-VON-XXXX is us.
Q: Talk about VON Communicator (an Windows XP application that offers presence, instant messaging and voice calls and a shared community buddy list). Is this some type of experiment with mixing social networking and VoIP?
My hope was to assign 1-500-VON numbers to everybody who is active with our VON Communicators so that someone could call you and it would ring on your computer. The trouble that we’ve run into so far is that I’m sort of a man without a country. We have that 1-500-VON number block, but nobody recognizes it.
Q: And when you say nobody, you mean none of the carriers?
Yes, right now we are in negotiations with several wireless service providers to recognize our number block so someone could turn on a cell phone and it would get recognized. Our goal is not to be recognized by the PSTN [Public Switched Telephone Network]. We will not pay access fees. We don’t believe we should have to and we are not paying into the Universal Service projects. These are only in-bound telephone numbers. There is no outbound service associated with it. It’s really facilitating peering between the public Internet and the established wireless networks.
Q: What kind of impact will this social networking have on VoIP?
A positive one. I think now VoIP is an afterthought for people who are building social networks. I thought, let’s create Jeff’s social network. How can I facilitate people finding people. At the show, it became a way for people to transition from the virtual world to the physical one. But that will be broken down after the event is over. What I’m hoping to do is facilitate knowing someone’s online presence. If you are looking to find somebody, it’s nice to know if they are on site. We didn’t release it at the show but we have a version running on PocketPC and my goal is to have it working on Mac OSX.
Q: How much does a provider need to be a profitable one?
I don’t think it’s really so much reliant on how many subscribers you have, it’s how much you are spending on marketing costs. Now that VoIP has gone commercial, the RPU [revenue per user] is way down. I find it a paradox that hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to attract $25 customers. I think there is a zero sum game and there will be many more losers than winners.
I have yet to see a service provider provide a service that is a value to a teenager who is growing up in this always on world. These kids have a virtual high school reunion every time they log in with IM. They feel comfortable with cell phones and SMS. They use e-mail and VoIP. But in any situation, if you ask them if they have talked to so-and-so, they will say, “Sure, I did.” But they won’t identify what means they used to do that. For them it’s all bundled together.
The challenge is for the service provider to give services to the kids who are entering the workplace. The services today are replacements for the current phone service. I have yet to see anybody in the market place deliver service for the kids today or the near future. That is a hole.
Q: Is that a lost demographic?
We’ve seen ringtones reach surge into a $4 billion business. We’ve seen music become the content of the telcos. I grew up thinking the only thing that the telephone industry and the music industry had in common was music on hold.
I think it is wonderful that there are no barriers to entry. You too can be a phone company if you want to be. But after the wave of early adaptors and the noise and whatever traction you have, brand matters a lot. Reputation matters a lot.
Q: How much of a gamble is VoIP?
It’s ironic, I’ve learned from my poker buddies that it is all about taking chances and not necessarily knowing the future. The other one I learned is don’t slow play your opportunities. That means is if you see an opportunity, take it.
Be humble of what you’ve gotten so far. It can be taken away from you as quickly as it’s come and you get no credit for leaving things on the table when you had the opportunity to take them off the table.