FWD tries to offer free phone service, Bells & FBI oppose plans

Jeff Pulver is leading the way in making the Internet a modern-day version of the ham radio and, as he sees it, paving the way “for truly free international phone service.'' But Pulver also has incurred the wrath of established telephone giants, such as SBC and Verizon, and law enforcement.

Jeff Pulver was fascinated with ham radio as a teenager. He still is.

Today, Pulver, 40, is leading the way in making the Internet a modern-day version of the ham radio and, as he sees it, paving the way “for truly free international phone service.''

Think of it as Napster for voice communication. Or instant messaging with sound. It's related but different from other Internet telephone-call services offered today.

But Pulver also has incurred the wrath of established telephone giants, such as SBC and Verizon, and law enforcement.

The phone companies see unregulated and untaxed Internet calls as a significant threat to their already shaky monopoly. And the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law-enforcement agencies worry that, if Pulver gets his way, criminals will have a “safe haven'' by making it much more difficult to eavesdrop on phone conversations.

More than 40,000 people from 160 countries have joined Pulver's Free World Dialup (FWD), a virtual directory service that does for the telephone what ICQ, AOL's Instant Messenger and Microsoft's MSN Messenger do for the written word: It facilitates instant two-way communication with anyone in the world at no cost.

How system worksSubscribers are given their own five- or six-digit “phone number.'' It's different from a regular land-line or cell-phone number but identifies a user's location on the Internet. They connect to the Internet using the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which adds to an FWD database the FWD phone number and the unique Internet Protocol (IP) address attached to the number.

FWD requires the use of either a SIP-enabled telephone handset (which range in price from $75 to $200) or a piece of software that enables the use of a computer as a telephone. These so-called “softphones,'' available for Windows, Macintosh and Linux — and even handhelds — work best with a dedicated headset and microphone.

When an FWD number is dialed from one of these devices, it looks up the IP address attached to the number, and the two parties are connected directly over the Internet.FWD is a directory of users that facilitates, but does not itself make, point-to-point connections between any two people.

Pulver, who is based in Melville, N.Y., is determined to make free international calling as easy as picking up the phone and punching in a few numbers. To that end, he started a company, Pulver Innovations, which is developing a SIP-only cellular phone that uses WiFi Internet connectivity to make its calls, and an “Internet Phone Patch,'' a small device that allows a SIP phone and a standard handset to seamlessly connect to one another.

The phone patch, which Pulver says will be released for $199 later this year, joins the two phones, converting two separate connections into one continuous stream.

With the device someone can use any phone, for example a cellular phone, and call anyone in the world on FWD for free. The caller would connect to his or her regular phone number, and the device “patches'' the call into the SIP line, which then sends it over the Internet to the receiving party.

The device also can work in reverse, allowing FWD users to dial a standard phone number in foreign countries for the cost of a local call. For instance, a caller in San Jose calls an FWD user in Tokyo for free using the FWD service. If the user in Tokyo has Pulver's device, the call then can easily be routed locally to any other telephone in Tokyo via standard phone wiring.

A third use for Pulver's phone patch is to allow someone away from their phone to be reached no matter where they are. Say a San Jose resident is traveling in Tokyo and is connected to FWD using a laptop and softphone.

 If someone calls that person's standard phone line in San Jose, the phone patch automatically relays the call to the FWD number because FWD recognizes that the number is connected to the Internet, even though the user is in Tokyo.

Pulver's visionBut you don't need this hardware to use FWD right now. Making calls to other FWD users is as easy as dialing a phone number. And, though work-arounds to connect FWD to standard phone lines are a bit complex, it is already possible to use this system to connect with toll-free numbers in the United States, England and the Netherlands.

In addition, Pulver just struck a deal with TellMe allowing FWD users to dial 411 and receive instant news, weather, sports and business reports and well as driving directions.

“This is going to totally change communications,'' Pulver boasts. “It's now possible to envision a world where PSTN (the standard public switched telephone network) doesn't even exist.''

In February, Pulver filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission asking that the FWD service be declared an Internet application, and not a “telecommunications service,'' subject to FCC regulations.Almost immediately, lawyers for SBC, Verizon and Bell South filed arguments asking the commission to reject Pulver's request.

And so did the FBI.

FBI's argumentAccording to Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman in Washington, federal law already gives enforcement officials the “authorization to intercept telephone calls,'' including those made over the Internet.

The FBI is asking the FCC to bring Internet calling under provisions of the 1994 Communications for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which requires phone carriers to provide them with direct access to phone lines.

Internet privacy advocates, such as the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, are backing Pulver.

But even requiring FWD to provide access to voice communications will probably be of little use to the FBI if a caller is determined to block eavesdropping. Because voice calls over the Internet travels in digital packets, it is relatively easy to encrypt conversations, or to use secure “tunnels,'' making them inaccessible to law enforcement.

This story originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.