VoIPBuster, VoIPStunt &
Finarea SA -
What's going on?
As of today (2 January 2006), conducting a Google search for the term 'VoIP' turns out approximately 97 million results. Among those web sites listed on the first page of the results is a 'PC to PC' and 'PC to Phone' Service provider by the name of VoIPBuster. As the world begins to take notice of Internet voice telephony, ranking highly for search terms such as 'VoIP' is a lucrative way to promote ones' company and boost web site traffic. So what sets VoIPBuster apart from the crowd and lands them on the first page of Google's results for such an important search phrase? Quite simply, they're offering free calls to conventional telephones in select countries and people are taking notice.
VoIPBuster is just one of several VoIP offerings from reclusive Swiss Telecommunications company Finarea SA. With successful forays into the British and Swiss long-distance telephone market, Finarea SA have carved out what appears to be a growing niche in the online carriage of Voice communications. By openly offering what other companies may regards as risky (i.e., free calls) they've gained the attention of millions of people worldwide who have embraced the VoIPBuster softphone and similar applications from Finarea's other VoIP companies.
Is Free VoIP Sustainable?
Till recently, I'd have put my money on the 'no' camp. Termination costs are incurred by service providers whenever the calls they're carrying are terminated via the PSTN. Others have tried to recoup these costs and failed through a number of means (namely serving advertisements on softphones and/or time limited 'free' calling promotions) however Finarea appears to have taken a slightly different approach.
Initially, users of VoIPBuster could register and use VoIPBuster's services for free. On gaining popularity and in an effort claimed to counter misuse of their network, VoIPBuster began charging a registration fee for unlimited free calls to those selected countries. The registration fee started out at 1 Euro, changed to 5 Euro and now stands at 10 Euro (coincidently as they're undoubtedly enjoying a steady supply of visitors from search engines). Users who had previously registered were not required to pay more once the registration fee was raised. Users are still able to make free calls using VoIPBuster to conventional phones without 'registering', however these calls are time limited to 1 minute in duration. Users who pony up the registration fee are able to make unlimited calls to those same countries.
The 'Free' List Changes
Initially, when VoIPBuster entered the market, they were promoting in excess of 20 countries to which free calls could be made. At time of writing, this has reduced to 16 countries. Furthermore, once free calls are halted to a particular country, another Finarea VoIP company pops up to fill the void with free calls to that same country (once another registration fee has been paid to the new company). Conceivably, this is another way to boost revenue.
Case in Point
I initially signed up and paid the registration fee to join Finarea SA's SIPDiscount. At the time of joining, Australia was among the countries offered as a 'free' calling destination. However, as soon as I started making calls to Australia, the calls were in fact being charged (albeit at a nominal rate of 1 Euro c/min) despite their web site still claiming that the calls were free. Soon after, the SIPDiscount web site was amended to reflect the charging of calls to Australia. Since then, another Finarea offering has popped up by the name of VoIPStunt which is currently offering 'free' calls to Australia and 38 other countries. I suspect that the list of 39 free countries currently offered by VoIPStunt will eventually shrink and that another Finarea VoIP company will step in to quench the thirst of users looking for the next 'best deal'.
So what's going on?
As reported on a well-known VoIP Wiki, Finarea SA may actually have a sustainable business model. It is hypothesized that revenue raised from registration fees may be 're-invested' and that the income raised may be sufficient to cover PSTN termination costs for the 'free' country lists. Furthermore, as the VoIPBuster and other Finarea SA VoIP company user-base increases, they (Finarea) may well be putting themselves in a position not unlike Skype where they become an attractive proposition for a 'buy-out'.
Another reason Finarea may be able to offer Free VoIP is that users have reported limited customer support/assistance. Telephone numbers for Finarea are not readily available and methods of contacting the company are limited (via an online web form and/or via snail mail). Few staff would undoubtedly contribute to low overheads.
What Can We Expect?
The Finarea VoIP offerings have a lot going for them. Free calls are hard to ignore and SIP compatibility is providing people with a 'real' alternative to using the legacy telephone companies for long-distance calling. In addition, growing popularity of the primary brands (VoIPBuster / VoIPCheap) have provided a conduit for advertising the newer, lesser-known brands (VoIPStunt, SIPDiscount, NetAppel, etc). It's certainly conceivable that as the user bases' of the lesser-known brands grow, new Finarea VoIP Providers will pop up offering 'free' calls to the countries that are cut from the better-known brands free calling lists.
Fact - All of the Finarea VoIP companies offer 'free' calls to conventional telephones in a select list of countries either without restrictions or after a 'registration' fee has been paid
Fact - The country list to which those free calls can be made is subject to (and does) change between the Finarea VoIP sites.
Fact - They claim not to employ any tactics involving Spyware, Malware or Adware.
Fact - When free calling to a particular country is halted on one service (usually the most well-known), it pops up as 'free' on another of the Finarea VoIP Services provided that the 'registration fee' is paid to the new company
Fact - SIP compatibility is not officially supported among the Finarea SA VoIP companies (with the exception of SIPDiscount). However, many users have reported SIP compatibility with all of their VoIP offerings.