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Are numbers prime?


By Scott Bradner


Internet telephony is beginning to take off.  It may be on a sometimes imperceptible angle of ascent but things are happening.  Hundreds of large companies are experimenting with Ethernet-based phones and voice over IP (VoIP) systems, a number have gone whole-hog for the new technology, including Cisco Systems in a demonstration of eating its own dog food.  At the same time millions of individuals are using VoIP over the Internet to reduce the cost of long distance, and sometime local phone service.  Almost two million in Japan alone -- 1.7 million using Fusion Communications Corp. and another 300,000 already using the new VoIP service from Softbank's Yahoo broadband Internet.  But almost all of these users share a common problem -- they use phone numbers even though phone numbers are useless on the Internet. 


There are two problems with using phone numbers for IP telephony.  The first problem is that phone numbers have to come from some place.  Since phone numbers were developed to identify telephone lines in the phone system they are provided as an integral part of a phone service and the numbers can be changed at the whim of the phone companies.  Since they only come with phone services, you currently need to have a phone service to have a phone number even if you want to only use the number and not the service - part of the Yahoo service fee is $13/mo paid to the phone company for a phone line just to get the number.  To add to the fun, phone numbers do not belong to the user.  In the U.S. phone numbers cannot be sold and if you move to another state you can not take your phone number with you.  At great cost to all phone users, you can now sometimes keep the same number when switching between phone companies in the same location.  


To me the second problem with phone numbers is the more important one -- with phone numbers you are dehumanized and turned into a number.  Some companies see a business opportunity in this dehumanization, I hope they are wrong.


The IETF's enum working group ( has developed a way to turn a phone number into one or more domain named based pointers that can be used to point to Internet services.  Services such as VoIP phones, IP-based voicemail boxes, email addresses and web pages.  To me this technology is part of an important transition strategy but should not be an end goal. 


As more and more of our interactions take place over the Internet, including the next generation cell phones, it is an ideal time to move away from numbers and migrate to human friendly name-based systems.  Email  addresses and web page URLs prove that this can work.  These names can be mapped into whatever addressing scheme is needed to get to the phone itself but the user should never have to use a phone number.


I guess I'm just not a number kind of guy.


disclaimer: Although the name "Harvard University" works better in the marketplace than the number "16174951000", the University did not express an opinion on the idea converting to numeric identities, I did.