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Why Do We Care About Names and Numbers?

This article is based on the most recent study [PDF] for the European Commission on the Policy Implications of Convergence in the Field of Naming, Numbering and Addressing written by Joe McNamee and Tiina Satuli of Political Intelligence.

In the telecommunications and Internet sectors, the fundamental “service” that has to be traded is a connection, whether it is for person-to-person communication or to purchase goods or other services, such as entertainment. In order for such services (take the example of a telephone call) to be delivered, the two endpoints of the connection (subscribers), or their locations (telephone devices), must be identified. Names and numbers are how these endpoints are identified; they are so-called “identifiers”. Names and numbers represent the resources that enable providers of telecommunications and Internet services to identify effective endpoints (an e-mail address for example is an endpoint in its own right but can also relay communications to other endpoints) and/or device locations. To grasp the imperative of numbering and naming, imagine making (or billing) a telephone call without either a number or name.

The fundamental issue related to the significance of current naming and numbering practice is that the supply of both names and numbers is finite, i.e. the resources are, in economic terms, scarce and must be unique, which, in turn, necessitates some form of control system (“Scarcity” does not mean “currently in short supply” in this context, rather in the economic sense referring to a good that has a finite supply).

In telephony, this scarcity is imposed by convention: under the telephony rules laid down by the ITU Recommendation E.164, telephone numbers should not exceed 15 minus n digits (where n is the number of digits in the international dialing code of a particular country, not including the international prefix). The issue of scarcity of telephone numbers has until now been managed—successfully—by a hierarchical, sovereignty-respecting system of allocating rights of use to the end user.

With relation to the Internet and also IP addresses, the “scarcity” is more complicated: there are not only intellectual property issues with regards to domain names, but there is also an issue of managing the integrity of the system. For any naming or numbering system to work, it is essential that the names and addresses used cannot be confused with any other—in other words, no one system can have two end-points with the same fully qualified number or name (“fully qualified” name or number is the name or number written in full. For example, 5032265 can appear in different numbering plans, but the fully qualified number +3225032265 is unique). Therefore, allocation of each resource must be made in a coordinated way, whether by government agencies or among competing businesses. A lack of a structured approach is ultimately unsustainable.

As is the case of any scarce resource where the allocation of property rights or usage rights is needed, the lack of a coherent strategy with regard to regulation of naming and numbering can have significant consequences for regulatory policy objectives, such as upholding the integrity of the system. Furthermore, in the case of the telecommunications and Internet sectors, where all levels of service provision (whether basic access or higher level value-added) depend on names and numbers for connecting and identifying users, a lack of strategy for managing identifiers could have a crippling effect on competition, which could ultimately damage progress, innovation, prices and consumer choice.

Although strictly network-level addressing has some bearing on this discussion as well, this article generally only covers naming and addressing which directly relates to the endpoints of the network (e.g. the user).

Does Convergence Affect Management of Names and Numbers?

Convergence of communication technologies complicates the management of names and numbers. It raises regulatory questions on a number of levels. For example, any convergence involving devices which use E.164 telephone numbers will need to take account of existing conventions, such as rules about the right to use and allocate E.164 numbers, the relationship between numbers and geographical area, network code, pricing, technology used (fixed or mobile for example) and procedures regarding the return of unused numbers to the national regulatory authority and so on.

The open standards on which the Internet is based, however, somewhat reduce the regulatory and organizational issues that arise from convergence of IP technologies. If a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) address is used as a centralized addressing system for e-mail, Instant Messaging, or other application, this address will be in the style of [email protected]. The only regulatory issues arising are those concerning the administration of domain names and portability between providers (where the domain used identifies the provider’s network), neither of which are new issues nor specifically related to convergence.

It is with regard to convergence between traditional telephony and Internet-based communications systems that regulatory issues are the most significant, for a number of reasons (ENUM, where telephone numbers are used as a centralized addressing system incorporating Internet-based technologies as well as traditional telephony services, is a perfect example of the new challenges facing regulators). By far the most important is the fact that the regulatory traditions of both types of technology are very different, requiring considerable reflection on the part of public authorities regarding how they will adapt to the new paradigm.

Obviously, current industry players have particular needs and interests in naming and numbering administration developing in a way that will benefit them, and they will unsurprisingly wish to influence regulatory developments to their ends. An in-built inertia on the part of existing market players wishing to minimize change requires fundamental questions to be asked about how openness and competition, which are themselves fairly new objectives and part and parcel of the new paradigm, can best be achieved. One question is, should we adapt, or even forgo, existing conventions and rules in light of a new environment, or should we squeeze the environment back into the restraints of perhaps outdated, but proven, rules and regulators? There are arguments for and against both philosophies. On the one hand we have experienced liberalization and seen its benefits for consumers, which are proof positive of the workability of existing rules and regulators and are certainly an argument in favour of sticking with the pre-existing rules. Furthermore, some market failures (like market power) may be simply transitory or fading and will therefore resolve themselves over time and do not necessitate adaptation of, or additions to, existing regulation. On the other hand, the traditional slowness and occasional ineffectiveness of some regulators, as well as the alleged ability of vested interests to influence policy could argue against this.

An alternative approach put forward is to adopt the lighter touch, the laissez-faire regulatory attitude traditionally associated with the Internet. Undeniably this has produced a vibrant global marketplace and is therefore, while not flawless (If we look at the destruction of the web browser market, which is widely blamed on the bundling of Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system, or the self-destructive refusal by Microsoft and AOL to improve interoperability between their Instant Messaging products, we can see that this approach also has significant problems. However, it needs to be stressed that interoperability is more a problem of lack of willingness on the part of the IM providers rather than insurmountable technical problems), not without merit either. Furthermore, the cost of market failure must be benchmarked against the possibility of regulatory failure, which can be equally costly in terms of stifling markets.

Why Now? What Now?

It is of utmost importance for future progress, as convergence is gaining momentum, that regulators understand the technological and market developments that are underway, and have coherent views on how to safeguard policy objectives like competition and respect for privacy in the converging marketplace.

Some existing legislation is already (or will soon be) in force that provides regulators with nominally clear (albeit broad) policy guidelines to follow with respect to regulating identifiers. Furthermore, some of the new rules, such as the recently adopted series of European Directives (2002/19/EC, 2002/20/EC, 2002/21/EC, 2002/22/EC) for the regulation of electronic communications networks, have been designed with the problems of future convergence in mind. Unfortunately, the devil will be in the detail. For example, Article 10.2 of the Framework Directive requires regulators to:

”?ensure that numbering plans and procedures are applied in a manner that gives equal treatment to all providers of publicly available electronic communications services. In particular, Member States shall ensure that an undertaking allocated a range of numbers does not discriminate against other providers of electronic communications services as regards the number sequences used to give access to their services.”

Indeed, Article 2 defines “electronic communications services” very broadly, meaning that the scope of this requirement is considerably wider than under previous legislation:

”?electronic communications network means transmission systems and, where applicable, switching or routing equipment and other resources which permit the conveyance of signals by wire, by radio, by optical or by other electromagnetic means, including satellite networks, fixed (circuit- and packet-switched, including Internet)?”

The question of which services in practice will be covered under the new framework is not yet clear (At the time of writing April 2003). Furthermore, these provisions must be read in conjunction with possible overlap with provisions of the E-commerce Directive, which covers information society services that may or may not also be defined as electronic communication services. Several case studies and examples cited in this study will illustrate how and why functional convergence between traditional circuit switched or mobile telephony networks and IP networks require new thinking with regard to how limited numbering resources are managed. Some examples will suggest that the principles of current national numbering plan management may have to be balanced against innovation in new technologies. It will also be illustrated how likely it is that the considerable lobbying power of incumbent telephone operators may pose the risk of regulatory capture in favour of the status quo.

Control over key aspects of the telecommunications/Internet business models (and “next generation networks” in general) will be of considerable significance in the converged marketplace, whether it occurs through intellectual property (AOL holds several patents on Instant Messaging and NetNumber holds patents on aspects of infrastructure ENUM), bundling (Microsoft distributes its Instant Messaging product with its Windows operating system), or property rights for scarce resources (number blocks have traditionally been only allocated to licensed telephone operators). The convergence between existing IP and circuit switched networks must be met with appropriate, coherent and efficient measures from regulators. In fact, as customer identity services increasingly become a lynchpin of competition in the converged marketplace, this is not just necessary but imperative.

By Joe McNamee, Political Intelligence Belgium Manager

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salomo  –  Oct 25, 2003 4:32 AM

What I do not understand is the assumption, that name in DNS are a scarce resource? This is true for the E.164 based numbering system but not for DNS names. The name space in DNS is de facto unlimited.

Please tell me if I am wrong.

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