But FWD is just one of his interests. In fact, it would be impossible to fit everything he's doing onto one business card. Pulver, who owns a piece of Vonage and is the co-founder of the VON Coalition, is re-launching an Internet-based progressive rock radio station, owns a record label and serves as chairman of WHP Wireless. He estimates that he has 20 to 30 companies running at any given time.
CED Editor Jeff Baumgartner caught up with Pulver to see what's next and what's ahead for one of VoIP's most fervent voices. An edited transcript follows.
CED: Run me through a typical day. How do you find time to answer your own e-mail, speak with the media, stay up to speed with the regulatory landscape and run all of these businesses?
Pulver: A typical day for me starts somewhere between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. I spend the early time going through e-mail for about 45 minutes to an hour and try to Blog in the morning before I get ready for work. By 8 in the morning, I'm ready for the day, and from 8 to 9, I hang out with my kids and drop them off for school. I'm in the office by 10.
While I'm at work I typically don't do too much e-mail. There are a few periods in the day when I'm really online. I'm usually online more when I'm on vacation, because I have an e-mail browser up all the time.
Then I do business things, whether it's focusing on what Free World Dialup is doing or who I'm going to invite to the next VON Conference. It's typical stuff.
At my office I also have my HAM radio. So when I actually have some downtime I'll turn my HAM radio on and play with it for a little bit. I use that as my tool to relax.
I leave the office anywhere from 6 to 8 o'clock at night. When I get home, after dinner, I get back online at night. Technically, I'm online from 10 o'clock to midnight, sometimes to 1 a.m. Then the day repeats.
CED: So, it's lather, rinse, repeat for you each weekday?
Pulver: Actually, I get some of my best ideas in the shower. I never can figure out why. We create these work environments for people to be productive when in fact the most productive time of day for me happens to be while I'm taking a shower. It's where I have my clearest thinking. It's where I get the ideas that really give closure to open issues.
CED: Free World Dialup just passed the 200,000 member mark, so where do you go from here?
Pulver: Given the current run-rate, we have the potential to have in excess of 500,000 members before the end of the year.
CED: That's fairly aggressive.
Pulver: No, not really. It's based on the fact that we have an average of 50 to 70 people signing up an hour. I did the math. To get to 300,000 subscribers between today and Dec. 31, we'll have to average 60 some-odd subscribers an hour. There are some days when we have over 2,000 subs added, and some days we don't.
FWD could end 2004 with more than 500,000 subs.
Free World Dialup has a duality. There's the Free World Dialup "service," and the Free World Dialup "network" and the community that supports us. From the community-building side, to date we have over 50 different voice-over-broadband service providers (including Vonage and Packet 8) that we have interconnect relationships with, which in our case means that we let them send us their SIP traffic, and via the public Internet we send them our SIP traffic. But most of the folks we have interconnects with are outside the U.S. They're in Japan, in Europe, in South America. They're in various parts of Asia where you might not expect innovation to be, but it's there. On a population basis, FWD is less than 30 percent U.S. at this point. We have people who claim to be in 186 different countries.
CED: With FWD, the word "free" is in there, so how do you make money from this?
Pulver: There are very subtle ways we make money with this. First and foremost... the revenue I see in a given year today comes from my conference business. There's the publicity and the visibility of Free World Dialup, and now there's an (FCC) order with my name for goodness sakes. That certainly has not hurt my ability to gather attention and get people together for my conferences.
There's an alchemy effect here. My process of turning lead into gold is being engaged in one activity and seeing the fruits of my labor flow over to my other activities. In the case of FWD, which has forced the issue for regulatory policy not only in the United States, but worldwide, it has certainly helped to raise the tide of everyone else involved in the IP communications industry. Whether they give us credit for it or not, that has had a positive effect on our conferences.
On the commercial side of our service, while the service is free and will be free, we are selling today and making money from advertising that's presented by Google. We're making some incremental revenue now, but it seems to be on the increase from ad word placements on our Web sites. If Free World Dialup wasn't inside my office and I had all of these people, you could almost live off of this. But I'm betting that there will be some people who will pay a fee in the future not to see any advertising. We currently make around $200 a day on advertising. It's just a number, but it adds up.
I have another company called Pulver Innovations, which today is selling various hardware–IP phones and other related devices. There will be a Free World Dialup store so that FWD directly will sell various VoIP accessories. There will be some profit. It's just that this kind of business is a very low-margin, high-volume type of business. I've had to invest in creating a back office and infrastructure and merchandising the technology. I'm the kind of person who will see very little profit because I see it as an investment in the industry. If I have a device that's costing me $82, I might sell it for $89. That's probably not even enough markup to pay for the overhead associated for getting the product out the door.
I'm not doing Free World Dialup per se to make money, as much as I am to do fun. It's like that MasterCard commercial–having fun is priceless.
CED: Earlier this year, you formed a project with Peer 1 Networks to provide help to other VoIP ventures. I'm assuming some of that help is financial. Can you update us on that project?
Pulver: Right now, it's in-kind. So far, about 40 people have submitted applications. It's hard to say no to anyone. If someone's coming forward with a passion and a dream, you want to help them out. It's just a question of, given the Peer 1 assets of collation and bandwidth, what are the things we can do that make a lot of sense, and what's not applicable? It's a relative screening process to make sure the people we approach, after they approached us, are the right candidates to work with.
CED: When you do select from this list, what kind of help will you provide?
Pulver: So far it will be in-kind with services. Certainly if someone came through who looked really, really, really interesting and there was an opportunity to contribute something to their success, it would be something I would consider. What we're offering effectively is advice and hosting. It's all about community building; it's all about giving back. Part of what I'm doing it for is to help others and give them a break, and if we can contribute to their success, then so be it.
CED: Now that you're looking at 500,000 subscribers by the end of the year, the Achilles Heel of SIP-based voice is quality of service. Is there a way yet for you to offer QoS without involving the network operator directly?
Pulver: Today the issue has not so much been quality of service as much as consistency of service and ubiquitous access in the home. I'm always looking at solutions that give us consistency. Getting to an infrastructure that can handle the numbers that we currently have, there have been some growing pains, and we've been systematically upgrading our infrastructure. The challenges in front of us as far as congestion to date, I won't say we have unlimited bandwidth, but for the most part, FWD only gets involved in the signaling of a call, not the media, so we don't have the scaling issues some others do.
Peer-to-peer does have its advantages. We're certainly trying to be up more than we're down. We certainly plan to have multiple servers running so that our availability is higher than we've been. Our quality of service issues traditionally, at least as far as we can track [them] down, [are] localized to the ISP on one end of the call.
We are, for quality of service purposes, also looking at high-end codecs for our own clients so that we can deliver better than PSTN quality. I'm so fed up with being "good as." Why not be "better than?"
CED: You were able to sidestep a regulatory hurdle in February when the FCC declared what you do is not subject to traditional phone regulations. Is that battle still far from over?
Pulver: Even though I have the deepest amount of respect for the current FCC administration–Chairman Powell, he gets it–the challenge is when you look outside the U.S., even a little bit north of us, there's a definite communications breakdown. Even in the U.S., within our own Congress, there are old school people who try to put old school rules on the technologies. I lose sleep at night worrying that innovations will ultimately be stifled because people are feeling competitively disrupted.
I've made it a public point to be available to go to things. What was weird was that a few weeks after I announced I was doing a conference in Canada, people became aware of the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) and what they were doing. They actually announced on a preliminary basis that they felt that VoIP service providers should be treated just like traditional service providers. While that was welcomed by people who must be otherwise known as neo-Luddites, I rejected that.
CED: If you could choose a newspaper headline 12 months from now, what would it read?
Pulver: In the business section, I'd like to see that some of the startups that stayed with voice-over-IP since the late '90s [began] to go public. I would like to read how IP communications are adding value to people's everyday lives. I would like to see that these are technologies being used in rural areas for people to stay in better contact with each other. I think that in some cases, conflict can be avoided if there is in fact open communication between people.