Jeff Pulver founded the IP communications service Free World Dialup, now known simply as FWD, way back in 1995. The service is probably best known for its connection to the FCC’s Pulver Order of February 12, 2004, which defined VoIP as an information (rather than telecommunications) service.
Pulver and FWD president Daniel Berninger recently announced an official relaunch of FWD with a $30-per-year ($300 for companies) membership option. What do members get? “Nothing,” Berninger says. “Everything that FWD offers is offered for free. The notion is that some percent—a small percent, presumably—of the people that use the services will feel inclined to contribute to the overall mission.”
So far, Berninger says the response has been enthusiastic. “A couple of hundred people have signed up… we really don’t need a lot more than that to sustain ourselves month to month,” he says. “We’re not trying to get rich: it’s just got to sustain the model and pay some of the costs. If memberships accelerate and we can get the word out, then we can be more ambitious.”
And membership, Berninger says, is only one part of the plan. “Part of our audience will be monetizing through membership to support us, and we’ll also have advertising enabled in some of our features,” he says. “The overall idea is just to sustain the operation.”
Berninger says two key parts of FWD’s mission are to help people get a handle on the increasing variety of communication options available today, and to provide interconnection for SIP-enabled devices of any kind. “FWD wants to lubricate the ecosystem and help people participate,” he says. “If we’re doing our job right, then it’ll be much easier for people to get into this new world of communications.”
In the past, he notes, there was little or no thinking required in setting up phone service. “Now, there’s so many options . . . no one company in this new world really owns the customer for all the customer’s communication needs,” Berninger says. “And so there needs to be a guy out there that helps people navigate and sort through what their options are.”
Still, it’s not just about being an information clearinghouse. “It’s a little more aggressive, in the sense that, historically, FWD has gotten out there and said, ‘We don’t think you guys should be regulating VoIP,” Berninger says. “We don’t really know what kinds of obstacles are going to pop up [in the future], but our view is, we’re going to just chase after whatever seems to be most important.”
One key change for FWD, Berninger says, is that the members will now have a direct say in those decisions. “Up to now, it’s been whatever Jeff felt was interesting over the last 12 years . . . the idea going forward is that it’s really the members,” he says. “One thing that the paying members get is a say: They will essentially determine what it is we’re working on.”
At the same time, Berninger says the focus will still be on finding and eliminating the obstacles to adoption of IP communications—including reliability, ease of use, and anything else that comes up. “Whatever it takes to speed the ecosystem,” he says.
The point is that the growing number of VoIP providers out there aren’t competing with each other as much as they are with traditional telecom. “The bottom line is, all the customers are not here—they’re not in the room,” he says. “They’re not in this new communication world, so the game is really getting people out of that old world and into the new world.”
Beyond that, Berninger says another key theme will be helping unconnected people get into the game. “There’s still four billion people in the world that don’t have any real communications: that’s a concern,” he says. “So we’ll see what we can do to get communication—voice communication in particular—to the rest of the world, and what the obstacles are.”
In the larger picture, the aim will be to change the way people think about communication. The number one request that FWD still gets, Berninger says, is the ability to call from an FWD phone to a traditional phone—but as soon as you touch the PSTN, you lose the ability to offer wideband voice and IP applications, you invite a regulatory attack as a telecommunications provider, and you have to pay for interconnection.
And Berninger says that has to end. “One of our top themes is just to break people from this notion that voice communication is synonymous with telephone calls,” he says. “There really is much, much more possible in the world of voice communication, and communication in general, than this very narrow solution that we call a telephone call.”