Thoughts on Bellster

The latest hot news on VoIP is Bellster, a P2P phone service by Jeff Pulver and friends. And it is really hot – just barely a week into the launch, the market is buzzing about it, from Wall Street Journal to CNet and of course, in the blogging world.

Now, I won’t tell you what it is all about – you can read that from Bellster. I am interested what this means for the industry (at least over here).

First, this have been tried before (technically speaking) with less buzz. Back in the early-mid 90s, people are hooking up gateways and helping long-distance companies doing local call termination. The main difference is that the hardware and software to do this is pretty expensive (20k++) back then unlike now which can be done on a 500$ linux box with open source Asterisk. Because it is expensive, it is usually done on commercial scale and thus quickly been shutdown by regulators or become legit IDD players.

Now, while it is technically the same, the difference now is the audience. In this case, it is the end-users who will be doing voice minute sharing among themselves. This pose an interesting debate – can individual who already bought X minutes of voice call share it with their friends? Looking at the IDA SBO Licensing Guideline

Operators [ie, you] who have deployed telecommunication network, systems and facilities [ie. your Linux-Asterisk] within their own property boundaries [your home], but wish to offer telecommunication services to third parties resident [other Bellster users] within their property boundaries, should [ie. must] also apply for an SBO licence.

Specifically, this falls under SBO(Class) – Internet based Data and Voice Services which requires a license from IDA. So while the license is not expensive nor difficult to obtain, any individual in Singapore participate in Bellster is possibly to be in voliation of Telecom Competition Code.1

But licensing aside, the question is ‘why not?’. Afterall, the end-user has already paid for his X minutes of voice call so why can’t he share it with his friends? Is it illegal to lend your mobile phone to a friend or stranger to make a phone call? How different is it conceptually between the two?

So, common sense say we should allow it. However, I doubt the lawyers nor the lobbists for the incumbent will agree. So once again, Jeff Pulver pushed the boundary for VoIP upon the regulators2 and forces us to rethink about our nice little box-set of rules.

1 That’s my own reading of the SBO Licensing Guideline & Telecom Competition Code and may or may not represent IDA opinion.

2 While Skype is a threat to the IDD players, the regulatory dilemna is much easier to deal with.

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