Saturday, October 30, 2004

ENUM, Numbers and URIs, VoIP and the PSTN

or: Netheads and Bellheads

or: Incumbent Telcos against Incumbent Cable Operators

The recent decision in the US to go for ENUM +1 (speading like wildfire over the blogger community) will definitely boost the ENUM deployment worldwide. Although for ENUM at least many ENUM trials existed (more or less advanced) in Europe and also in Asia, the US was not even delegated in Many ENUM sceptics therefore asked the perfectly valid question: What about the NANP? As long as ENUM is not deployed in the US, it will not fly. This argument may now go away.

The revival of ENUM, but also the recent developments regarding DUNDi and GNUP also revitalized the discussion if VoIP and especially SIP should use numbers or URIs. A lot of bloggers are throwing their two cents worth on the numbering issue in VoIP and ENUM.

Starting with Chris Holland Numbers are so 1849, also Robert Sanders Number of the Beast (still pointing to RFC2916 instead of RFC3761 for ENUM) and ending with Answaths Numbering and Addressing in VoIP: Wag the Dog?

Answath's article is analyzing the recent history quite well and he draws the following conclusion: "So there is only one reason for sticking to E.164 numbers - the industry is lazy or risk averse in trying to change the UI of the terminal. So as advocates of VoIP, we should strive for improved UI for the terminals and insist on URI based dialing (which will marginalize the service providers). Oh, by the way, do everything to encourage your circle of friend to migrate to VoIP. This means you should not subscribe to additional virtual numbers, because this will take away the economical motivation to get VoIP."

This is IMHO reaching to a bit too short, numbers will be around for other reasons quite a while. Rich Shockey is giving in his presentations a bunch of other reasons. Also insisting as provider or manufacturer on something your customers do not really want is not productive.

But the last sentence is very interesting: "This means you should not subscribe to additional virtual numbers, because this will take away the economical motivation to get VoIP" - but in a different sense. This comes back the full circle to my previous arguments:

Providing virtual VoIP services just as PSTN replacement is NOT the future business. But the real gold nugget in Answath's article is the following statement:

How come a Nethead turns into a Bellhead when placed in the “voice” environment?

This is the best statement I have heard in the last weeks (and I have heard many, being at the VON), because it explains an issue I was wondering recently:

How come that virtual VoIP Service providers (I considered them netheads up to now) start begging for regulation?

Answer: because they got infected and started to turn into Bellheads. Especially the European VoIP services providers lead by ITSPA and heavily supported by ECTA are fighting to keep the incumbents out of the VoIP game by declaring VoIP to be just another technology for the old PSTN voice service (= the incuments have also significant market power there) and therefore also the related remedies (e.g. they are not allowed to bundle their services).

In addition they are getting greedy, because they finally got the message of the advantages of interconnect (= getting termination charges), which is working only with numbers. They are starting to dislike public URIs and ENUM, because for ENUM you need an URI to point to, and start to get attracted by DUNDi, GNUP and other closed Carrier "ENUM" solutions.

This is IMHO a big mistake for two reasons:

1. VoIP as PSTN replacement in a shrinking market is not the communication of the future, it is convergence, as I already stated:
-convergence in the access: triple play
-convergence at the customers device: OnePhone
-convergence at the service and application level: Office 2003, LCS 2005 and Istanbul

So they should try to get their money in providing really innovative services and not mimic the old PSTN services.

2. The real battle is anyway going on somewhere else. These little providers are only taken hostage by ETCA to support lobbying in the battle between the incumbent telcos and the incumbent cable operators and the battleground is triple play.

In most countries the cable operators are not considered (like the incument telcos) to have SMP, so they do not need to provide bit-stream unbundling, ULL and may bundle TV, Internet Access and Voice Services without any remidies and they want to keep it that way.

Simon Hampton, Chair ECTA Broadband Group last week in Brussels wanted remedies for
telco incumbents for (some statements):

-Bundling of bitstream and PSTN subscription
-Quitting PSTN subscription is a pre-requisite for number portability
-“Unbundled” / ”Naked” bitstream needed
-Bundling PSTN access and calls
-Bundles of call minutes could be disguised predation
-Retail regulation may be necessary

And of course the best one: VoIP is a fixed-line substitute, whereas mobile is a complement.

Now this is a nice one, considering the recent developments in GSM/WiFi convergence.

Guess the real affiliation from Simon Hampton: Time/Warner ;-)

Yes, numbers are so 1849... Spoken like a true techie who thinks that it is technology for the sake of technology itself. Technology serves users and that is it. There are BILLIONS of phone endpoints with only keypads! Keypads are language neutral! Your grandmother understands how to use a phone number. Your 4 year old understands how to use a phone number. Serveral thousand techies know how to use a SIP URI. Congratulations. Now move on and create a service for the masses.
No. You've got it backwards. Numbers are the result of a technical limitation. Technology was imposed on life. People coped. People bought themselves notepads, to write-down numbers next to people's names. Those numbers were not only tied to a person, but also a person's location. Should a person ever change physical location, said person would lose the number. There is nothing elegant or user-friendly about this system. People coped.

Then came e-mail addresses. Slowly a more human face was placed on "people identifiers". Again, people learned, and coped, language barriers were somehow dealt with.

A SIP address, from a user-interface standpoint, is the exact same thing as an e-mail address. Many providers chose to use numbers for SIP addresses. They don't have to. Some just do.

If someone can grasp an e-mail address, they can grasp a SIP address. They are essentially the exact same thing. Language barriers are essentially the same.

Here's my basic problem: various SIP players want to supplant the existing phone system, with yet another number-based phone system ... powered by SIP. I have a few problems with that:

1) the SIP protocol will enable more than just "voice" or "phone". It will enable video conferencing and even instant text messaging. If we are to look ahead just a little bit, someone's SIP address should reflect their ability to be reached in real-time. In this case, a "phone number" makes less sense. A SIP-address such as "" starts to put a more human face on reaching someone.

2) From a technical standpoint, coming-up with "yet another numbering scheme" will require building yet another centralized look-up service for the system to work. We need to move away from centralized authorities that determine who is who. That's what address books are for. A full SIP address already solves the uniqueness and routing problem. From your SIP address, any SIP device knows all it needs to know to reach you. Having a "number" for VoIP is only going to make the central authority tell the device what your contact's SIP address is ... so it can reach you. Why not just store the SIP address yourself in the first place? "Because of the keypad ... numbers ... i gotta have my numbers!!!!!" you'll answer, which brings me to my next point.

3) We don't have to use a numeric keypad to get in real-time touch with someone. We can evolve to richer, simpler, smarter interfaces. Systems that leverage user-controlled, synchronized address books. Eventually, instead of asking someone's e-mail address, you might simply ask them what their SIP address is, and in many cases, they'll be the same. I can be reached at for both e-mail and SIP. Here's a sample case. I meet you in the subway. I put my phone next to yours and press "send my contact info", your phone subsequently says "add this person to your contacts?", you press "yes". Done. You have my SIP address in there. Do you care that you do? Nope. Because when you call me, your phone will be smart enough to detect the fact that you're connected to a broadband WiFi connection and place a call to me over SIP. If no SIP address exists for me, or if you're not on a WiFi network, it'll connect to my regular phone number over your mobile phone's GSM network. And the whole thing happened in less time it took you to blink.

We should leave "phone numbers" to the existing phone system. That's what they were built for. We can save money in various creative ways by routing PSTN numbers through VoIP gateways, the way Vonage does. It saves cost and gives added flexibility and features, but doesn't try to reinvent the existing phone system: it is part of it. Such systems may or may not use SIP, but they don't need SIP.

At the same time, obtaining a SIP address should be just as important and meaningful to us and our friends as obtaining an e-mail address. We should all seek to slowly but surely evolve toward SIP, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel of a clumsy phone system that seeks to confine us to numbers.

Once we've successfully evolved to SIP, we'll have by necessity evolved to maintaining our own address books and interacting with smart devices. SIP or Phone numbers should slowly fade away from your consciousness, in the end, we're mainly interacting with names.

I never type numbers in my mobile phone. I've got 300 address book entries, always in sync with the laptop, various web-based email systems and even my iPod.
You are both correct:

A: There are BILLIONS of phone endpoints with only keypads! Keypads are language neutral! Your grandmother understands how to use a phone number. - Correct

Chris: you may have spared all your arguments with your last sentence:

I never type numbers in my mobile phone. I've got 300 address book entries, always in sync with the laptop, various web-based email systems and even my iPod.

Correct - BUT- I you also will never type a SIP URI in your mobile phone. If you want to call me (regardless if with tel: or sip:), you will lookup Richard, RichardS or Richard Stastny, depending how may Richards you know, and will click on. And if I copy this over as you said, I (or the normal user) gives a sh*t of a sip or tel URI or both is copied over.

BTW, your example with has a serious flaw, it is NOT PORTABLE by definition, if you change ISP, you will loose it. Most phone numbers now are portable, with global CCs like +878 you may even have a number for life. Ok, may be a solution, but this you never will get (that is the advantage of ;-).

Finally, this blog is about ENUM and most people forget: to use ENUM you MUST have a sip: URI!

So ENUM is a vehicle on one side to keep phone numbers working as long as required, but prepare the path for migration to other contact mechanisms.
Richard: Good points

Your 4th paragraph essentially agrees with my first paragraph before the last one ;] Whether we use a SIP URI or ENUM or a PSTN number, devices should eventually be smart enough to make the connection mechanism completely transparent to the user.

But i just get the feeling we'll get to smarter devices faster if consumers put pressure on device makers to handle SIP. To handle SIP, they'll need to provide more advanced/compelling user interfaces that'll promote user-controlled, connected, synchronized, address books. Once you start thinking beyond "punching numbers on a keypad" to "call someone" and start "picking a contact from a list" to "reach someone", things should, hopefully, evolve in interesting directions.

But I agree with you, since ENUM relies on SIP, they're just a dumbed-down version of a directory service, and should hopefully enable that transition.

But someone's going to have to run that directory service and it isn't going to be free is it? Who's going to run it? There will need to be a central set of networked machines to handle all ENUM routing. Are the current telco monopolies going to handle that? Sure ENUM can give us portability, but it will be at the cost of relying on "yet another central authority" to determine who is who and how to get to them.

I'd rather have a chance to choose among a myriad of future ISPs who should be able to provide SIP URIs and SIP routing at a low barrier to entry and deal with the mild inconvenience of notifying all my friends whenever I decide to switch ISPs. It's already fairly easily done all the time with e-mail. EarthLink makes it easy to switch from AOL or MSN, and I'm sure they return the favor. If you maintain your own address book, this is fairly painless.
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