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December 04, 2003Hold your hats, as Daily Summit gets technical, dipping into the exciting world of ENUM, our attention piqued by a post from Tim Denton, a Canadian lawyer specialising in telecommunications and the internet, and "with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means."
Tim is worked up by Canadian reactions to Enum, a system which aims to let users call existing telephone numbers - over the Internet. As I wasn't quite sure what the issues were, I picked up the phone and Tim helped me out...
Making voice calls over the net has long been hyped as the next big thing, but widespread usage now finally seems to be only just over the horizon. Skype, for example, describes itself as "the next phenomenon from the people who brought you KaZaA. Just like KaZaA, Skype uses P2P (peer-to-peer) technology to connect you to other users, not to share files this time, but to talk for free with your friends."
It sounds cool. Free calls over the web - and there's a corresponding amount of hype (rhymes with Skype?). In the words of Associated Press, the service is "tantalizingly telephone-like." But it's only that - telephone-like, not yet as good as the telephone.
The big problem is that you can't yet dial any of the world's vast number of existing telephone numbers over the web. And that's where Enum is supposed to come in.
In a nutshell, the ITU, who are running WSIS, have the task of deciding how telephone numbers will be translated onto the internet, and who will hold and update the vast "look-up tables" needed to make the system work. They then need to persuade a significant number of countries to implement the system and make it work.
Privacy is a big concern. As Tim puts it, "will there be caller-party control or called-party control?" In other words, if a phone number is effectively given a global identity, what will the caller be able to find out about the person they are calling?
With a simple whois search, for example, I can quickly discover a lot about the person behind the Instapundit domain - name, address, phone number, fax numbers, shoe size (joke) etc. Would you want someone to be able to find out all this about you from your phone number?
The other issue is how to mesh together the "systems and culture of telephony" (hierarchical, highly-regulated) with the "systems and culture of the internet" (less hierachical, less-regulated).
Within the Canadian context, Tim believes, government's instinct is "the usual Canadian 'Why are you thinking fifteen minutes ahead of fashion?', or worse, 'Why are you thinking at all, when you could Wait for Orders from the Authorities?'."
It may be hard to slow Enum's momentum down, though. "Those who have had some experience in the domain name game are familiar with how an industry can self-organize, how industry groups are established, how websites are set up, and we are highly aware that we do not need permission from government to think, foresee and act," Tim writes. "Order liberty is the name of this game."
So does this all matter to the ordinary user? Well, not right now, but maybe sooner than you think. Tim predicts "significant Enum usage within 2 years." Early adopters are undoubtedly already licking their lips...