July 17, 2003 3:07 PM PDT

VoIP--a Tower of Babel?

Jeff Pulver is the top cheerleader for voice over Internet Protocol, a cheaper form of telephoning that's winning a few thousand converts every week.

He should be happy. But instead he thinks he's helped create a Tower of Babel.

Pulver's new venture, Free World Dial-Up, is among a new class of providers of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) that sell or give away Internet telephone calling plans. While the services can differ dramatically in price or quality, one thing is constant: Many subscribers of different VoIP services can't talk to each other.

There is no technological hitch as to why VoIP providers are "little islands," as Pulver put it recently. VoIP carriers are being overprotective with the customer information they must share to connect with another VoIP provider's customers, he said. They "are running their networks like fortresses; they won't let anybody else in," he added.

Now Pulver plans to lead by example. His company already has forged a deal with VoIP provider Deltathree so Free World Dial-Up's 36,000 customers can talk to Deltathree subscribers and vice versa. He's also in talks to craft similar arrangements with other VoIP players, such as Packet8, that use the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard. SIP is widely believed to be the cornerstone of Net-based phone calling.

"The way people are evolving, everyone's an island right now," Pulver said. "There's no technology keeping us from talking. It's all policy right now. I'm fairly confident (that), by the end of the summer, most of voice over broadband will be talking, whether just in the labs or on a commercial service."

VoIP services typically promise a smaller phone bill, virtually wiping out charges for long-distance and international calls. In addition, connecting phone calls over the Internet could eventually open the door to advanced communications services that tie voice together with e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing--something that Microsoft and others are already working to achieve.

If successful, Pulver's new push could for the first time connect the few hundred thousand U.S. VoIP subscribers with each other and, as a consequence, generate more VoIP calling. A spike in VoIP use, in turn, could help convince cable companies to go forward with their currently stalled plans to sell VoIP services. While there are about 2.2 million cable subscribers that can make telephone calls, they use a form of circuit-switched telephones, not VoIP.

After years of relatively slow growth, VoIP providers are generating renewed interest among consumers, thanks to a sharp increase in broadband connections to the home, improvements in quality of service, and hookups that allow VoIP calls over ordinary telephone handsets rather than clunky PC microphone systems.

Some critics, however, believe Pulver isn't trying to "crush the Tower of Babel" as he calls it, but instead is starting a power play by amassing VoIP providers with the most restrictive VoIP plans on the market. Some VoIP providers with which Pulver is negotiating cannot get calls from regular landline phones or cell phones. Others don't let subscribers receive incoming calls at all.

"We wouldn't look (at those VoIP providers) as competitors," said a representative for Vonage DigitalVoice, which sells unlimited local and long-distance dialing to any kind of phone for $40 a month.

 

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