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Pulver debuts P2P Bellster network

Digital troublemaker Jeff Pulver unleashes a way to use the Net to let anyone use your phone to make a call.

Digital troublemaker Jeff Pulver is at it again. This time, he's unleashed a way to use the Internet to let anyone use your phone to make a call.

And, conversely, you can place calls all over the world--often for free--by "borrowing" someone else's phone.

Jeff Pulver
Founder, Bellster

Bellster, as Pulver's new creation is called, smashes yet another telephone industry tradition. Until Bellster's release about a week ago, it was very difficult--if not impossible--to share a phone line with someone else without the phone company's consent. But now it's happening, thanks to voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, a burgeoning technology that lets Internet connections double as local phone lines. VoIP is the underlying plumbing in Bellster's system, which ultimately lets people call any type of phone.

The system is built on several groundbreaking ideas. There's the notion that people are willing to donate unused technology resources, a la the SETI@home project, which lets people contribute their computers' processing time to the search for extraterrestrials; peer-to-peer networks, through which millions of Internet-enabled devices can swap files at any time; and open-source software. The only expense is for the hardware, which can cost up to $1,000.

The technology is very new, and people in the VoIP industry are still digesting it. One analyst, who asked not to be named, said, "It sounds like a typical Pulver poke in the eye of the phone industry."

Early concerns are the expense, possible law abuses and the limited number of potential users who have the required server savvy. Typically, commentators think highly of the idea but pan the cost and the required technical sophistication. "It is, unfortunately, not for mere mortals," Alec Saunders writes on his Web log. On Slashdot, a reader offers dialogue instead of traditional commentary: "RING. 'Hello?' 'Hi, is your server running?' 'Well, you'd better catch it!'"

Bellster occupies new turf in the VoIP landscape. Among the new providers is the well-known Vonage, which sells unlimited calls from your home phone. Another type is represented by Skype and Pulver's Free World Dialup (FWD), which are free peer-to-peer telephone services. Calls are free when made among computers, but those from your PC to traditional phones cost extra.

Unlike Skype and FWD, Bellster lets users reach the public switched telephone networks anywhere in the world where there is a member gateway.

While serious technical and real-world adoption hurdles remain, the project does mark a step forward for the peer-to-peer networking model. Where most consumer applications previously have focused on sharing or swapping digitized content such as music and videos, Bellster instead shares communications networks.

That raises a threatening notion for telephone companies already struggling with falling profits and tectonic shifts in networking technology: If they lose their role as traffic cops that direct voice and data traffic on their networks, they could find themselves with even more pressure on their bottom lines.

Oh man, is there assembly required?
Like most new technology, Bellster necessitates much assembly of expensive equipment, and the software has so far only managed to attract a few hundred users since its recent release.
"It sounds like a typical Pulver poke in the eye of the phone industry."
--phone industry analyst

The basic ingredients are a local landline or cell phone line, a personal computer loaded with phone software known as a soft phone, and a server storing software from an open-source PBX (private branch exchange) called Asterisk. A PBX is essential to direct phone traffic. Also required is a converter for connecting your phone line to the Internet.

Next, minutes of calling time are needed. Where do all these minutes come from? People donate them, largely from the package of unlimited calling they have. Initially, Bellster users can only make calls if they donate calls.

Once the pieces are in place, Bellster creates what Pulver calls a "telephone cooperative." The call begins on someone's computer using the soft phone. It's broken into bits of data that travel over the Internet to a Bellster member's computer in the vicinity of the call's destination. The call then jumps back onto the traditional phone network using the Bellster member's local or cell phone line, which completes the call.

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Pulver says there are already concerns about Bellster, including worries about a stranger using your phone line to make calls for potentially illegal purposes.

But there are also built-in safeguards; for instance, you can block certain numbers from being dialed from your line, and Bellster lets you set limits on how many calls you permit.

"The Bellster challenge for 2005 is to find out whether or not there are still people in the world who would let total strangers place noncommercial phone calls for free in exchange for the ability to do the same thing themselves," Pulver said in an e-mail.