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January 31, 2005

VoIP, Spam, and Access Charges: A Radical Proposal

Voice spam might be the curse of VoIP.  The do-not-call list is not going to work for VoIP calls from obnoxious humans or robots because they don’t have to be in a jurisdiction which enforces do-not-call. There’ll always be some small nation glad to host them.

The only obstacle to international voice spam is today’s cost of an international call. But, when both caller and callee use a service like Skype or Vonage, the incremental cost of these calls is zero to both parties.  As soon as there is a critical mass of IP phones, they may never stop ringing with unwanted calls.

Look what’s happened to email because of the infinitesimal cost of adding another name to outgoing spam.  As bad as email spam is, voice spam will be much worse because most voice is realtime and most of us only have one channel (with two ears) for receiving it.  At worst, we might have to block calls from anyone we hadn’t put on a positive list.  That would be a significant barrier to communication.

The answer to both email and voice spam, I believe, lies in access charges.  Today in the US access charges are levied by local phone companies to compensate them (overcompensate them would be more accurate) for terminating interstate phone calls.  The current system was devised during the breakup of AT&T in order to split calling revenue between AT&T, the long distance company, and its regional offspring.  The idea was that the regionals own the local loop so they should be paid for calls which come from somewhere else and use the local loop for the last mile.  The whole system of access charges is in disarray over issues such as the correct level of compensation, rural subsidies, and whether VoIP calls are interstate.

In fact, once all of our phone calls reach us over a broadband local loop which we pay for on a flat monthly basis – and that time is coming very quickly – then clearly the right to levy access charges belongs only to you - the recipient of the calls.  If you are renting the local loop as you do with cable, DSL, or wireless Internet access, then only you should be entitled to collect access charges.

When we assess and collect the access charges for both email and voice calls addressed to us, spam will cease to be a problem.

Here’s one way it might work:

  1. You set the prices for reaching you with an unsolicited email or voice mail.  The price for each can be any amount you want!
  2. Callbacks and replies are “solicited” so they are exempt.
  3. You can set up a list of callers and email writers who are exempt from charges.
  4. You can retroactively exempt any call or email from charges and, at the same time, put the caller or sender on your free list.  So, when Aunt Sally finds you even though you forgot to put her on the free list, you can forgive the charge.
  5. Charges due are always subtracted in advance from an account or credit line of the caller or sender.
  6. Payments are made periodically to you.

The higher you set the bar, the less unsolicited communication you will receive.  On the other hand, you can set the bar low and get revenue and information from those who feel you are a good prospect worth the price of reaching.  This could even get fancy and you could “advertise” your demographics in order to get paid for looking at ads.

This sounds weird but there is nothing strange from an advertiser’s point of view in paying to reach a qualified prospect.  And we also sell access to ourselves; we do that when we give up our email address or phone number in order to get “free information” or to be entered into a contest.  We do that when we watch the ads in a television show in return for the content of the show (at least, before Tivo, we did).

At one bold stroke, we settle forever who is entitled to access charges and eliminate email and voice spam as problems.  All of the technology to do this already exists.  The business model shouldn’t be difficult.  There is an opportunity to make money by running services which verify identifications, host free lists, clear transactions, provide mailing lists which include the cost for reaching each recipient, etc.

The problem, a huge problem, is how do we get from here to there.  How do I start to charge people for sending me email or calling me when no mechanism yet exists for them to pay me?  Many an idea for a network nirvana has died because there is no mechanism to get from nowhere to fully networked which has any benefit to the early adopters.  This may be one of those fatally flawed ideas.  It should be easier to implement in the voice world, where people are still used to paying for most calls they make and access charges are already being collected, than in the email world but I haven’t figured the transition out for either world.

Please comment with transition ideas or, if you are an incorrigible entrepreneur, keep them to yourself until you get funding from your favorite VC to implement them.

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