Phone numbers are far from dead, but there’s a lot that could be done to add value to the traditional telephone numbering system. It was an interesting consensus, since I expected to hear panelists on the IT EXPO West 2014 panel “OTT and UC: The Future of the Telephone Number” I moderated August 12, come to bury the digits, not to praise them.
The traditional PSTN has used Arabic numbers for phones and calling for over a century, adding additional digits, area codes, and country codes as it grew and thrived to link the world together. Today, certain area codes such as 212 (Manhattan, New York City) and the 800 “toll free” continue to have cachet, noted Hugh Goldstein of Voxbone and Scott Navratil of Vitelity.
Number portability presented some challenges when first brought into widespread use, but now works without drama with the use of centralized databases. Some nations first used multiple databases for phone number routing, resulting in call connection delays for users that had switched carriers more than once or twice.
Disposing of phone numbers is a non-trivial matter, considering the billions of dollars of businesses built around tracking, routing, supporting, and selling the items. Panelists were reluctant to offer a prediction when numbers would go away, with one speculating people would continue to carry around a number along with physical addresses for paper mail.
“You rarely get anything other than junk mail, but we still have addresses on business cards,” Goldstein said.
Phone numbers have lost some value because they are relatively easy to obtain, but few mechanisms are in place to verify the identity of who is on the other end. Caller ID is constantly spoofed and there are no large scale “blacklist” efforts to register and block calls coming from malicious parties. How many times have you received an unwanted call from “Windows Technical Support” lately?
Using phone numbers as the basis of more value has long been the provenance of Richard Shockey and others urging the construction of an uber-phone directory to map device characteristics to phones for trusted and easier multi-media connections. For example, high-end telepresence rooms could simply “call” each other with a trusted directory available, rather than having to go through a labor-intensive configuration with SBCs and IT staff involved each time another room is added to the calling list.
VoIP spammers, such as “Windows Technical Support” and generally annoying telemarketers who ignore the FTC’s “Do Not Call” list may provoke a move to verified phone numbers (Carriers, are you paying attention?). Canadian regulators reportedly are considering an enhanced number directory for blocking callers.
I’d make a more radical suggestion to leverage phone number as a means of enhanced identity. Combine the phone number with voice biometrics and device services to verify identity and location for purchases, ticketing, and secure access. OpenID provides secure credentials across websites on the Internet. A secure phone number identity scheme could provide multi-factor authentication for individuals and organizations in a variety of situations.
The only limiting factor to building better ways to use the humble phone number is the willingness of carriers to be more open and innovative in taking what they view as a customer cost and turning it into a revenue-generating asset.
Edited by Rory J. Thompson