The Bellster Bellyache

Jeff Pulver knows how to get attention. So when he announced his newest product, Bellster, it very quickly became the darling of the blogsphere. Wall Street Journal weighed in with a nice article, and so did tons of other publications. Martin had suggested something similar last year! I have not written anything about it – simply because I was obsessing about the AT&T-SBC deal, which in my opinion is a red letter day for the telecom business. (Read more in my Business 2.0 Telecom Report!) Secondly, I wanted to try out the product before I could really say anything sensible about it. So Sundays being my WinDOZE days – the days when I muck around with mostly Windows related stuff – I tried Bellster. I wish I had not but too late now! Martin puts it well when he writes

“this will generate an initial fenzy of interest, but will remain a niche. Much like Free World Dialup, which underestimated the value of convenience, usability and ubiquity.”

(What amazed me was the number of people who wrote about this stuff, but never really put it through the grinder called dollars and sense!)

The premise behind Bellster is pretty simple – download the software, and become a node on the network. It is the same principle used in most peer-to-peer networks. By becoming a node, Bellster client becomes like a micro central office. All calls coming into a node in say San Francisco will forward calls locally. On paper it is a wonderful idea.

However, there is an economic reality most over look. The current long distance prices are much lower than local rates. If you don’t believe me, then check your phone bill. It costs more to make calls from San Francisco to Palo Alto, then it does from San Francisco to London. Even VoIP calls are so microscopically cheap, that I don’t see the economic value to it. This is an idea which has been tried before and in the early 1990s, a whole industry cropped up around it.

What Pulver has done is turn this into a software which is easy to use, free to download. The problem is that this is against the terms of phone service you sign with your local carrier. (Singapore residents don’t try it at home, or you will be whipped!) Technology Futurist points out that calls going from US to other countries are going to be a big problem for those in say Latin America and Asia. Why? Because in those countries the calls are billed on pulse rate – like a few pennies every minute. Rates vary according to time of the day, so that could mean local nodes would be hit by a big bill. Meanwhile Jeff has received a stern warning from BellSouth to stop using the name BellSter.