Speak now or forever hold your peace: While there are no credible implementations or business models around ENUM, the protocol for converting IP addresses into phone numbers, a regulatory trial balloon has already been launched.
At a recent Pulver Telecom Policy Summit meeting in Washington, NeuStar Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Ganek faced a room full of folks from the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies and laid out a game plan for ENUM regulation.
Citing the U.S. economys increasing dependency on telecommunications infrastructure, Ganek called for future-proofing telecommunications networks against the challenges posed by adding new IP-enabled devices into the telephony mix. His proposal? Give everybody involved a clear roadmap to convergence. NeuStar, which is the sole government-appointed manager of phone number assignation in North America, wants the job.
"We are working very quickly with other service providers and government agencies to get selected as a tier-1 ENUM operator," Ganek said.
The pitch apparently arrived in a kind of regulatory vacuum: Though ENUM is an Internet Engineering Task Force specification, it doesnt seem to have an owner or an agency that could influence its destiny.
"It isnt even clear to me who in the U.S. government is authorized to request the delegation be made," said David Conrad, chief technology officer of Nominum, a developer of Domain Name System server software. "Architecturally, having a single operator of [an ENUM database] is by far the simplest and most robust solution to develop and deploy."
Conrad wasnt particularly surprised at NeuStars bid, given the companys involvement with number assignment. That expertise, Ganek argued, is reason enough to let NeuStar run the ENUM show.
As it stands now, ENUM technology essentially matches IP addresses with telephone numbers, allowing, in theory, phone calls to terminate on IP addresses, and vice versa. NeuStar is a North American Numbering Plan Administrator, the Local Number Portability Administrator for the U.S. and Canada, and operator of the telephone routing registry. In other words, this is the company that understands scale when it comes to managing telephone end points.
A similar database soon will be needed for voice-enabled IP addresses. The seminal event on the road to making refrigerators behave like telephones is Microsoft adding a Session Initiation Protocol stack to its Windows XP operating system. The move essentially makes any PC with a microphone, headphones and an Internet connection into a telephone, capable of initiating and receiving calls. More SIP-enablement is expected to follow, and NeuStar wants to be there to ensure the right IP addresses are receiving the right phone calls.
But why not let ENUM develop as all things Internet have so far -- unregulated, in a competitive private sector environment? Ganek said this is not the type of a business that would benefit from what he calls "Lone Ranger approach."
A Tier 1 administrator of an ENUM database, appointed by regulators, is needed to run the master entity of all the numbers. For international policy on this technology, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is a good working model for ensuring international representation, Ganek said. Nationally, the Department of Commerce is the government body destined to lead the effort of representing the U.S. and securing a Tier 1 administrator. NeuStar knows ICANN and Department of Commerce operations firsthand; it runs a registry of "dot-biz" domain names through subsidiary NeuLevel.
"The government needs to ensure there is a registry operator, and that the service is specified," Ganek said.
NeuStar already runs a test bed for ENUM services, which can be viewed at http://enum.org.
While NeuStar is the first to express a desire to become the ENUM administrator, it is not the first company to try to develop services around the technology.
A large group of vendors and service providers is concentrated around NetNumber, a company that has been working on developing ENUM-based services since 1997. Some of the participants say the hands-off approach that worked so well for popularization of other Internet-based services is the right medicine for ENUM as well.
"I dont know if there is a critical mass to regulate ENUM at this point," said Gary Kalanj, senior vice president of engineering at Webley Systems. "We are in the embryonic stage of the evolution of voice on the Net. What we have not seen yet is the end points proliferate." Webley is a communications convergence equipment vendor and a member of NetNumbers "Interconnect with ENUM" Alliance.
Indeed, with Session Initiation Protocol phones running between $300 and $600 a pop, there is little chance these devices will drive mass adoption of voice-over-IP calling. But with more devices - like PCs running Windows XP - getting SIP software, the good money is on ENUM regulation - or self-regulation - being needed in the foreseeable future.