Are numbers prime?

– Internet telephony is beginning to take off. It might be on a sometimes-imperceptible angle of ascent, but things are happening.

Hundreds of large companies are experimenting with Ethernet-based phones and voice-over-IP (VoIP) systems. A number of companies – including Cisco Systems Inc., in a demonstration of eating its own dog food – have gone “whole hog” for the new technology.

At the same time, millions of people are making phone calls over the Internet to reduce the cost of long-distance, and sometimes, local phone service. Two million of these people are in Japan alone – 1.7 million using Fusion Communications Corp. and another 300,000 using the new VoIP service from Softbank Corp.’s Yahoo broadband Internet.

But almost all these users share a common problem – they use phone numbers, even though such numbers are useless on the Internet.

There are two problems with using phone numbers for IP telephony. The first is that phone numbers have to come from some place. Because they were developed to identify telephone lines in the phone system, they are provided as an integral part of a phone service, and the numbers can be changed at the whim of the phone companies.

Because they only come with phone services, you currently need to have a phone service to have a number even if you want to use only the number and not the service. (Part of the Yahoo service fee is $13 per month paid to the phone company for a phone line just to get the number).

To add to the fun, phone numbers do not belong to the user. In the U.S., phone numbers cannot be sold, and if you move to another state you cannot take your phone number with you.

The second problem with phone numbers is the more important one – with these numbers you are dehumanized and turned into a number. Some companies see a business opportunity in this dehumanization, but I hope they’re wrong.

The IETF’s Enum working group ( has developed a way to turn a phone number into one or more domain name-based pointers that can be used to point to Internet services such as VoIP phones, IP-based voice mail boxes, e-mail addresses and Web pages. This technology is part of an important transition strategy but should not be an end goal.

As more of our interactions take place over the Internet, including calls made on next-generation cell phones, it is an ideal time to migrate from numbers to human-friendly, name-based systems. E-mail addresses and Web page URLs prove that this can work. These names can be mapped into whatever addressing scheme is needed to get to the phone itself, but the user should never have to use a phone number.

I guess I’m just not a number kind of guy.

Disclaimer: Although the name “Harvard University” works better in the marketplace than the number “16174951000,” the university did not express an opinion on the idea of converting to numeric identities. I did.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at