FWD Dials Up a New Direction

Free World Dial-Up. The name just breathes a certain anarchy appropriate to the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Which, from The Phone Company’s point of view, is exactly what it was when the world’s first IP phone network debuted in 1995.

Now FWD’s founder and sole financer Jeff Pulver — it’s not exaggerating to call him the Abraham of VoIP — has decided that it’s time for his baby to stand on its own two feet.

In keeping with Pulver’s vision of “participatory communications,” last Friday FWD users were asked to support the service as paying members, who will cooperatively set the organization’s priorities and determine its future direction.

So far the response has been promising, according to FWD president Daniel Berninger, with several hundred users signing up for the $30 individual membership and a number of business users signing up at the $300 business level. FWD has about 700,000 users, with about 30,000 online at any given time.

“Once we get on our feet and sustaining, and it’s member-driven, we can focus on members’ priorities,” explains FWD president Daniel Berninger. “One of the complaints [by members] over the years has been about support and reliability. One of our top priorities is to look at reliability and support and streamline those.”

But that’s just the beginning. Just as FWD was “disruptive” — one of Pulver’s favorite phrases — in 1995, the organization continues to advance that mission in its new incarnation.

“FWD is really about evangelism for the [VoIP] industry and ecosystem,” Berninger says. “We say to people, use FWD and all the other services out there — all the options for people, all the alternatives to the phone company. Our goal is not survive or fail on any one service.”

For businesses, this evangelism plays out to make FWD a business development platform, according to Berninger.

“The good thing today is that we have a lot more options to communicate. The bad news is that it’s really complicated. What FWD tries to do is help people navigate that complexity. The basic idea is to provide tools for people to create their own solutions.”

That’s why the FWD network was always open to any IP network, and any IP phone or ATA can be configured to work with the service.

In addition to continuing the focus on opening new alternatives, the organization is also looking at evaluating the growing number of VoIP/WiFi handsets. “We want to show that you can do some interesting things with VoIP/WiFi handsets,” says Berninger.

One thing that won’t be a focus is the PSTN. FWD began as an exclusively IP network, and while it has added some out-calling features, the service remains focused on IP communications.

“Since we were looking to provide an alternative to the PSTN, we’re not in a hurry to interconnect,” Berninger explains, calling the PSTN “the third rail” for IP voice communications because of taxes, regulation and E-911.

“We’ve had a number of requests [for PSTN connection]. But we’re trying to break people of that habit,” he says, adding, “It’s a very different world view.” You could call it disruptive.