VOIP Pioneer Aims For End of Regular Phone Networks

By Steven Scheer

Jeff Pulver has a dream: That his invention a decade ago of making phone calls using the Internet will eventually be used by everyone and traditional phone networks and copper wires will be a thing of the past.

"Whether that will happen in my lifetime is another story but my hope is to basically enable people to be free -- to have the freedom to define what their communications experience is," Pulver said in an interview with Reuters during a visit to Israel, which he calls the birthplace of commercial use of Internet phone calling.

Pulver is a pioneer of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology and is a co-founder of fast growing VoIP provider, Vonage, as well as founder of a half-dozen other VoIP firms.

Vonage has more than 700,000 subscribers and is adding 15,000 a week in the expectations of hitting 1 million by year end.

A number of competitors -- as well as many cable companies and large telcommunication firms -- have sprouted up around the United States and around the world as Internet voice services have become cheaper than traditional phone offerings, while quality and reliability continue to improve.

As a result, Pulver estimates there are some 9 million paying VoIP customers around the world -- 6 million of them in Asia -- and millions more with Skype, the Web site that allows for phone calls around the world for free to and from computers.

"Skype is a major player," Pulver said. "So, if you look to the future there is an opportunity to grow big. The market can bear a few more Skypes."

Pulver believes the industry is at a crossroads, with so much room for growth but a host of regulatory and financial issues confronting it.

"The last 125 years the telephone industry has replicated and replicated but now, the DNA has changed," he said.

"The challenge is regulation and how it is adopted by governments protecting (telecom) incumbents," Pulver said. "And, some companies are so focused on the bottom line that they can't look outside the box."

Pulver said there is a huge market where a company like dominant phone company Bezeq Israel Telecom, for instance, could offer virtual Israeli phone numbers to its citizens living abroad using VoIP.

The same could be said for any country, he said, adding another focus for VoIP would be to blend messaging offerings into intergrated devices.

"It's up to the kids now in high school," Pulver said. "They need to look at the technology they are playing with and commercialise those."

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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