VoIP Like You Give a Damn

When I checked out Google’s blog post Tuesday about its Free the Airwaves project, which aims to convince the FCC to approve the use of the white spaces between the spectrum vacated by analog television channels for broadband access, I saw it offered the ability to phone your Congressman. I thought that was kind of cool, so I clicked through to learn more.

I found myself at the master’s thesis of Fred Benenson — a VoIP-based program called Cause Caller that mixes IP telephony and activism. At the site you can enter your telephone number and Cause Caller makes a VoIP call to one of a randomized list of Congressional reps. So far 11 people have made calls on behalf of the Google campaign, which is exactly where things stood on Tuesday when Google provided the link. On the site Benenson said he funds the project himself, so I wondered if an influx of Google calls might bankrupt him, or if Google had volunteered to help offset costs.

Apparently the answer to both is no, and since few calls have been made so far, Benenson may not have to worry. So far Benenson says his most expensive cause has been an effort to impeach President George W. Bush that generated 1,000 calls, but also says he pays less than 3 cents a minute for VoIP and uses Amazon’s EC2 for his servers and Asterisk for the PBX. The EC2 is the most expensive part of the project, which in total has cost him about $500 so far. Benenson has a day job at Creative Commons, so he’s not looking for a revenue model, and says he doesn’t mind footing the bill so far.

“I keep it alive because it’s a fun hobby,” Benenson says. “I basically did the whole site by myself from the design to the VoIP programming, so I kind of took a long hiatus, but now I’m ramping up and starting to blog about it again. The Google notice is like a shot in the arm.”

Cause Caller strikes me as one of the more interesting ways that technology can intersect with politics, with the potential to make a greater impact than emailing petitions and encouraging voter engagement by texting a candidate’s running-mate announcement.