Numbering system could have us saying

A new kind of telephone numbering system could change the way enterprises view communication, but the technology must overcome a number of hurdles before it hits the big time.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and other organizations bent on bringing communications protocols to light, in May announced that a standard designed to bridge phones and computers is ready to go.

Known as E.164 Number Mapping (ENUM), this procedure transforms telephone numbers into domain name system (DNS) entries. Mapped into DNS, phone numbers should be much more powerful locators than they are today.

DNS entries can carry along with them various “naming authority pointers,” each one representing a device, be it a home phone, cell phone, office phone or even the office e-mail inbox.

Through ENUM, instead of using different numbers and addresses to reach a colleague at any one of those contact points, you’d use just one. For example, dial 555-1212 into an ENUM-enabled application to reach your co-worker. The application would give you the option of sending the call to his home phone, cell phone, office phone or e-mail. Select the device you wish to contact and send the call on its way. Users would have one phone number for each person, rather than for each device.

Ronald Gruia, a Toronto-based analyst with Frost & Sullivan Canada, said ENUM could change the face of electronic interaction.

“There are a few key advantages if ENUM holds up to its promise.…Being able to track down a person by one pointer, you could tie that into a very nice unified messaging application.…That would be very powerful.”

But ENUM faces many challenges before it comes to fruition, indicating just how far the technology has to go before becoming a viable communication option.

For the time being no one knows if ENUM will be controlled on a national or international level, said Bill St. Arnaud with the Canadian Internet development organization CANARIE Inc. Would Canada control its own ENUM database? Or would the task fall to an international numbering body?

“Should there be solely a global registry or nation (or continent) based registries?” Arnaud commented to Network World Canada. “If the latter, should DNS handle it, or the traditional organization that hands out telephone numbers?”

Gruia wondered about the same thing. Would DNS registrars like the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) take care of ENUM? Or would companies like NeuStar Inc., which doles out telephone numbers south of the border, handle the new service?

“The dilemma most countries face is picking which government agency would oversee ENUM,” Gruia said. “For example, in the United States the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulates phone numbers. Meanwhile the commerce department manages DNS.…Does ENUM fall under the jurisdiction of the FCC or the department of commerce?”

And which group would control ENUM in our home and native land, the DNS folks or the phone number bunch? Gabriel Ahad, spokesman for CIRA, said it’s too soon to predict.

“On the issue of control, there could be advantages in going one way over another, but we’re not going to comment on that. What we’re saying is, [ENUM] is something we’re looking into and something we will move forward with at the right time, given the right conditions.”

The control conundrum suggests that conditions are far from right at the moment. And the questions concerning ENUM’s final form keep coming. To wit, what will service providers like carriers and telcos do with the technology? After all, ENUM essentially builds a bridge between the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and IP. It’s either a boon or a busting headache for the likes of Bell Canada and Telus Corp.

“The service providers have to decide if they want to embrace ENUM because they’re going to have a few issues,” Gruia said. “One of them is they’re not going to have a mechanism to know what the QOS (quality of service) is.

“For example, let’s say you have a call that originates on the PSTN and terminates on an IP network. The carrier knows that on the PSTN they have a certain level of quality of service. But if the call terminates on some network they do not control, and they don’t know what the QOS is, that’s going to be interesting.”

These questions lead Gruia to believe that ENUM will appear first as an application for the enterprise. Network gear vendors would develop ENUM-enabled IP PBXs to better connect enterprises with offices in different parts of the globe, thereby letting businesses bypass the PSTN altogether.

“Let’s assume you’re deploying an IP PBX,” Gruia said. “Let’s assume it’s a huge deployment, something on the scale of what Cisco is doing with Dow Chemical – 50,000 end points around the world.…The old way, you would have to figure out the dial-numbering plan. ENUM could help out big time, because it could map automatically and you don’t have to worry about the dialling plan. It’s very straightforward. I think that…will be one of the early ones.”

But according to Glen Marschel, CEO of Inc., carriers will be the first to deploy ENUM, not enterprises. He explained how, an Austin, Tex.-based ENUM directory services company that first started working with the technology in 1999, began with the notion that enterprises would be interested in buying ENUM services. But businesses didn’t bite.

“Businesses do not want to be their own telephone companies,” Marschel said. “That was our original model.…We had vendors build our client into PBXs so they could talk to one another. Businesses didn’t want to buy it.”

As far as Marschel is concerned, carriers are the ones to chase, not enterprises. has what it calls a “Global ENUM” service that telcos seem interested in trying, he said. “We’re either going to run that as a service or license the technology to carriers so they can utilize it internally or carrier-to-carrier, to talk to each other via IP.”

Asked what has to happen before carriers implement ENUM, Marschel said, “We think they have to see a very viable business case, where they save money without spending a lot.” He added that ENUM would come in on its own in the coming “months and years.”

Gruia said it could be a while before ENUM impacts our everyday lives as business people and citizens. Considering the debate swirling about this technology, suffice it to say, “there are a few things that need to be looked into and addressed.”