Technology

Thinking Outside the (Phone) Lines


Jeff Pulver wasn't like the other 12-year-olds in his suburban town of King's Point, just outside New York City. While most of the boys shuttled back and forth to baseball, football, and hockey practice, Pulver sat alone in his bedroom for as many as 40 hours a week, talking over his ham radio. He wasn't really alone, though: He was connected to a worldwide community of amateur radio operators.

At age 16, when Pulver got his first car, a 1980 Pontiac Trans Am, he figured out how to link an early cordless phone to his home phone via his ham radio. So, before mobile phones were even a dream for American consumers, Pulver had his own car phone. "It was geeky, but it was so cool," he remembers. "I could be 30 miles away from my house and patch myself through to anyone in the world."

Pulver has continued to come up with communications inventions -- nowadays on an Internet scale. He's the man behind Free World Dial-Up, a service that, though still clumsy, allows anyone to make free calls anywhere in the world over a PC. He's co-founder and minority shareholder in Vonage, an Edison (N.J.) voice-over-Internet-protocol (VOIP) provider, that has signed up 15,000 customers who pay $40 per month for unlimited local and long-distance phone service. Pulver is also the inventor of the CellSocket, a device that allows cell-phone subscribers with more minutes than they can use to make and receive cellular voice calls via a standard phone.

CONSUMER POWER. None of these innovations has turned the industry on its ear -- yet. But VOIP is a technology whose time is about to arrive. Already, 18 million U.S. homes have high-speed connections to the Net, a number that will double to more than 36 million by 2004, according to ARS Research. With broadband, U.S. households will have more choices for local-phone service -- and how it's delivered.

That's Pulver's goal: "Over the last 50 years, the automobile has changed a lot," he notes. "Computers have certainly changed a lot. But the telephone hasn't really changed at all. That's a result of 125 years of monopolistic control. What I'm trying to do is create environments where we have consumer empowerment."

Pulver, age 40, first became interested in Internet phone calling in 1995. He was at home sick one day from his job as a systems administrator at bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald when he logged on to the Net and downloaded a piece of software that enabled PC users talk to one another over the Internet using a special sound card and a mini microphone.

SET FREE. Pulver signed up for the service and used his ham radio handle as a nickname. Hundreds of other people were also hooking up like this. "All of a sudden, I found that my love affair with ham radio was being relived through a new technology," he remembers. "I was talking to all sorts of interesting people around the world again."

With twin baby boys, Pulver wasn't sleeping through the night anyway. So he stayed up late putting together a directory for Net voice aficionados. A year later, on July 5, 1996, Pulver lost his job at Cantor -- or as he likes to say, "got his independence" -- and dedicated himself full-time to making VOIP a reality for more people.

His first move was to bring together Net voice enthusiasts at a 1996 conference he called the Talking Net. He posted information on a mailing list and rented a room in New York's famous Puck Building. "I had no idea if 5 or 50 people would come," Pulver remembers. "Two hundred showed up, people who later became world famous founders of high-tech companies."

HANDSET HELPER. The next spring, he held the conference, now called Voice on the Net (VON), at the Ritz in San Francisco. Attendance more than doubled, to 500. "We became like Deal Central," Pulver brags. "I personally set in motion 20 mergers and planted the seeds for a bunch of acquisitions." At the height of the dot-com bubble, 4,000 entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and technology analysts attended VON.

To say Pulver is a self-promoter is an understatement. His accounts of his adventures in Internet voice are peppered with phrases such as "and that's how I got famous" and stories whose moral is that he's "just doing this for the people." Still, most participants in the VOIP business don't seem to mind: "My experience with Jeff is that what you see is what you get," says David Isenberg, a telecom consultant who has been attending VON conferences for several years. "Sure he's self promotional, but that's because he believes in what he's doing."

Pulver's interest in VOIP is also evident in his serial entrepreneurial ventures. Not the type to write business plans, he uses money he earns from conference planning to launch companies and see where they take him. Three years ago, Pulver, along with his uncle, Fred Pulver, invented the CellSocket, a cell-phone cradle that solves two common complaints. It has an external antenna that delivers better reception in low-signal areas, such as the basement of a home. And it plugs into a regular phone, allowing a caller to use it to make cellular calls, which eliminates the inconvenience of using small cell handsets at home. To date, Pulver's company, named WHP after his father William Howard Pulver, has manufactured 40,000 of the units, whose basic model sells for $99.

FREE PHONING. At the moment, though, Pulver's passion remains Free World DialUp -- something critics call a "Napster for phones." Free World DialUp is a free service that allows people to circumvent the public-phone network by connecting voice calls over the Internet using a PC or an "IP telephone," a specially designed $250 handset manufactured by the likes of Cisco (CSCO) and others (see the Mar. 28 story "FBI Seeks Internet Telephony Surveillance" by BW Online content partner Security Focus).

So far, Free World DialUp has nearly 13,000 subscribers from over 65 countries. Pulver says he regularly fields calls from major corporations such as Citibank (C) that are investigating using the technology for intraoffice calling. Typically, Pulver has several other companies in the works. His favorite new venture is developing software that would give telephones the automatic-response capabilities of instant-messenger software.

"What I've always wanted is to have a service provider that would make sure that if someone calls me in the middle of the night, I don't hear it ring, " Pulver says. "Instead, the person gets a message saying, 'Hi -- it's 4:48 a.m. in New York. Chances are, the Pulvers are sleeping. If you knowingly want to wake us up, press one. Otherwise, leave a message.' Now what happens is that if the person dials through and says, 'Hi, did I wake you?' and I say, 'You know damn well you did.'"

"HEAVY LIFTING." The idea isn't without precedent. But Pulver's determination to make it a reality makes him a standout in the telecom industry. Three years after the Net bubble burst, humbled telecom entrepreneurs are focused primarily on products that serve the status quo.

"One of my goals is to do the heavy lifting for the [telecom] industry by trying to develop markets for innovative services," Pulver says. Maybe someday, consumers everywhere will thank him. By Jane Black in New York


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