Phone numbers to gain domains on the Internet

Merging voice and data will speed up as devices are linked

An emerging standard dubbed ENUM will soon make telephones, fax machines, pagers, handheld computers and other devices with phone numbers accessible through the Internet's Domain Name System.

'We expect to see a public ENUM system set up in the next year,' said Bryan Whittle, senior director for naming and numbering initiatives at Telcordia Technologies Inc. of Morristown, N.J.

Telcordia teamed with VeriSign Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., to build one of the first public ENUM test beds.

'The basic, plain-vanilla service works,' Whittle said.

The Internet Engineering Task Force's ENUM Working Group could finish the standard by the end of the year, and selection of an administrator for the United States could begin next year, Whittle said.

But the U.S. government has not committed to a globally coordinated public ENUM system as distinct from privately administered services.

'We are tracking it with great interest,' said Scott Marcus, senior adviser for Internet technologies at the Federal Communications Commission. 'The government prefers to regulate things where there is a proven need for regulation. This is new. Within U.S. industry there is wide support for a globally coordinated tree,' but some companies prefer an unregulated approach.

ENUM protocols would cross-reference ordinary telephone numbers with DNS server listings, tying together the Internet and the public switched-telephone network.

Dial a URL

ENUM translates numbers from the E.164 international phone numbering system'used in this and most other countries'into DNS-searchable addresses with a special domain appended. A DNS query would search the domain for registered numbers and associated information about them.

ENUM-enabled applications could access Internet services and other information via phone numbers. A number could be used in place of a URL or an e-mail address.

ENUM also could provide a single point of contact for wired and cellular phone service, faxing, paging, instant messaging and e-mail.

The mapping would speed up the protracted convergence of voice and data networks. Most voice over IP schemes now use the Session Initiation Protocol for making and breaking connections between voice and IP networks, which limits such traffic to SIP gateways. ENUM would integrate phone numbers directly into DNS.

Products coming

Telcordia and Internet registrar VeriSign opened their test bed for number registration in December 2000, and 400 companies are using it to evaluate products and services. In March 2001, NeuStar Inc. of Washington started a test program using trial phone numbers. Inc. of Lowell, Mass., provides commercial ENUM services for service providers. The first ENUM-enabled products are expected to arrive late this year.

'We found that the standard works,' Whittle said. 'It's straightforward to integrate into an application.' Specifications for privacy and additional services still must be worked out, however.

The big question is whether there will be a top-level registry for the United States, or North America perhaps, operating under government contract, as opposed to competing commercial registries.

The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency, probably would oversee a globally coordinated system. The State Department has asked the ITU not to delegate the U.S. portion of the North American numbering system for ENUM yet. State is the U.S. representative to the union and would have to sign off on any selection of a top-tier administrator.

But another agency probably would make the selection and oversee the program, 'if it's something the government wants to get into,' Marcus said.

The two leading regulatory contenders are FCC and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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