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Parsing Hype From Hope: Will ENUM Spark Changes In Telecom?

In the beginning there was silence; then, silence begat communication, and communication begat more communication and, ultimately, group communication formed and begat a primordial “network” of communication that gradually and inevitably increased in effectiveness and complexity: there were only signal fires at first but, then, there were cave drawings, carrier pigeons, shouting from hill-tops, smoke from fire, lines of cannon fire, the telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell, and, finally, the network of networks known as the Internet. But, is that it? Is there not something more impressive in its impact upon communication than the Internet? What more might one desire than the dynamic wonders of the Internet, you ask? Well, what about ENUM? “E-What!?”

“Mr. Watson, come here, I want you” were the words used one evening, in March 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell called to his assistant Thomas using what has come to be known as a telephone and, as a result, an industry of telecommunications was born. ENUM could represent a similarly innovative event, if it is implemented as advocated by a hard-working group of technologists. To the unacquainted, ENUM denotes nothing more than a techie-sounding-hobgloblin, yet, ENUM, which stands for electronic numbering, represents what could become the most distinct productive development of the Internet protocol since the Internet, itself.

Stated plainly, ENUM could make it considerably easier than it presently is to keep in touch with friends and family members without having to provide cell phone numbers, email addresses, and a number of other contact numbers. ENUM could enable anyone to designate their telephone number as their single point of contact. Communications sent to your fax machine, voice mail, email, home telephone, work telephone, pager, instant message user name account all could be directed to a single source by using an ENUM service. Using as an example the 10 digit phone number (and country code) +1-555-555-7997, the ENUM protocol converts the telephone number into a machine readable DNS address:

1. Remove all characters, save the +, to read: +15555557997

2. All characters are removed and dots are placed between these digits: (in DNS terms, each digit between the dots can then become a defined and distributed zone. For this example, delegation to North America at the country code zone designation of “1”. The same can be accomplished at the area code zone, as an example.

3. The order of the digits is the reversed:

4. The ENUM suffix or domain “e164.arpa” is appended to the end:, which is used by the DNS to connect the caller to the recipient seamlessly and regardless of whether the person called receives the call via an Internet telephone, pager, PDA, standard telephone, cell phone email, or some other device.

Consequently, ENUM represents the ability to map services onto the domain name system; in essence, your circuit-switched telephone number is assigned a corresponding web address, or URL (Uniform Resource Locator) that enables an end-user to call anyone in the world using the Internet as a telephone network regardless of whether the call recipient has access to an Internet phone or a traditional circuit-switched phone.

More importantly, ENUM can be a vehicle of empowerment by disconnecting control over telephone services from monopolistic incumbent local phone companies, and placing control in the hands of end-users, phone customers, and entrepreneurs. A wealth of innovation should spring from the implementation of ENUM, which should lead to a vast array of telecom and e-commerce products, including VoIP (or Voice over IP), smart caller ID, improved Spam detectors, as well as enabling a level of interactivity with devices and appliances that will coincide with the introduction of useful robots in the home. In other words, ENUM could lead to the creation of a bottom-up, user-centric communications-phone system that offers services sought by end-users, and likely provided by Internet or web-based service providers rather than traditional telecom providers. In this manner, ENUM will do more than spark changes; it will mark an unprecedented level of technological convergence.

There have been many early assessments concerning what was marked as the convergence of a wide-range of information technologies as a result of digital technology. In 1997, I, and many before me, declared that computers and the Internet would fuel the imminent convergence of traditional telephonic communication with computer communications with high quality, low cost, and efficient data-driven digital communications. But, in truth, convergence has not been fully embraced. ENUM may genuinely alter the forces forestalling this digital convergence because ENUM is inherently a convergent protocol because it ostensibly marks the convergence of data and voice networks.

Yet, when you parse the hype from the promise of ENUM, a potentially irresolvable paradox is apparent: the more we satisfy our desire to control the flow of information through innovative interconnected digital networks, the greater the risk is that we may lose actual control over information flows through technological fiat. Some commentators already have questioned whether we are prepared for the extent to which ENUM may impact rights of access and disclosure, including rights sustaining information privacy, freedom of expression, Cyber Security, and consumer protection.

At bottom, ENUM is a protocol for using a Top-level domain (“e164.arpa”) to map telephone numbers to the domain name system (DNS). As a result, ICANN, as the Internet Corporation responsible to managing the global DNS, is likely to have a significant role over the management and deployment of ENUM services. Is ICANN ready to manage the deployment of what is likely to be a ubiquitous, global, telephone system? I doubt that anyone would think so today, but, if not ICANN, who?

Few would argue in favor of a form a global governmental paternalism as the most suitable structure to ensure the best deployment of ENUM services. But, it should surprise no one who has had an arm’s length observation of ICANN’s activities over the past couple of years that ICANN’s effectiveness in governance of a public trust is seriously in doubt. While ICANN’s failures may not warrant abandoning the use of ICANN to manage the deployment of ENUM, it is far more certain that without suitable reform, ICANN’s inclination would inevitably lean toward quashing the vast innovative potential of ENUM.

Similarly, it is apparent that the regulation of telecommunications has been an important prerogative of sovereigns and the legitimacy of ICANN’s imprimatur in this domain must be carefully assessed and accounted for before ENUM services are widely deployed. ENUM could radically undermine telecom public choices identified by national or local governments. Technology can construct new realities and end-run public choices only if we fail to distinguish matters of technology from those that are actually matters of political or public choice.

Privacy is an area of particular concern that still needs to be directly addressed before active deployment of ENUM services. Under pertinent conditions, ENUM could enable the value of an end-user’s telephone number to eclipse the social security number in importance in the United States; however, the telephone number functions largely as a public number—for the most part, end-users openly disclose telephone numbers, rather than conceal them or view them as private matters. It’s quite likely that without suitable protections in place, ENUM could be used as a vehicle for identity theft, and an explosive growth in unacceptable information disclosures or database profiling.

Undoubtedly, there will be resistance to ENUM by existing stakeholders, and the failures of attempt at Internet governance will provide compelling arguments for those who view the assignment ENUM registries and ENUM registrars as a potential for chaos or a serious threat to the stability of the Internet’s domain name system. Indeed, those who counsel that the move toward the deployment of ENUM services should be deliberative and with full consideration of pertinent social and political implications that should accompany the introduction of significant Internet protocols are exactly correct; the prudent deployment of ENUM services will require a global strategy that directly confronts the latent ills of a managed or regulatory monopoly in a manner that does not thwart the potential for further wide-spread innovation in communication services.

By Rod Dixon, Attorney

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