Originally telecom providers built and provided a limited and controlled range of services, which customers could choose from. When competition was introduced into the market along with the internet, so too was consumer awareness of choice. In the future, Phil Kingsland contends, consumer demand will drive the development of new and specific services and a key enabler of these could well be Public ENUM
Convergent communications isn't a new concept, but it's the topic that continues to dominate the telecommunications industry. As the new and traditional technologies continue to converge, the number and types of products and services available will grow and evolve with suppliers offering a combination of services, tools and applications for users to communicate with.
At the same time as the technology's converging, so are the telecommunications and internet industries. One of the challenges for the two industries is the speed of development and innovation, especially regarding fixed line and packet-switched internet telecoms.
The telecommunications industry is 140 years old and provides trusted and regulated services, with the associated reputation of regulated industries in regard to speed of innovation and development of new technologies.
In contrast, the new kid on the block for the last decade or so has been the internet, which is run on a bottom up, self regulated, multi- stakeholder model, which has delivered a fluid environment, with constant changes and innovations. The internet's model enables services to be developed, tried and adopted or rejected faster, without the large-scale investment that is required to launch a regulated telecommunications product. This has allowed the industry to introduce a number of new and innovative ways to communicate that we might otherwise not have seen.
The combination of two very different industries is having an enormous impact on the telecommunications industry. As convergence evolves, the classification of services becomes blurred. Customers can now get a multitude of services from many providers. These services are often becoming consolidated in a continuous evolution, increasing competition in an already fierce market.
A new issue introduced by this convergence is not being able to contact a VoIP telephone system from another VoIP system by using the associated telephone number. If the VoIP address of the recipient of the call is not explicitly known then the call must be routed via the Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTNs) to identify the called party. ENUM was designed to address this issue; it maps telephone numbers into domains that are stored in the internet domain name system (DNS). The owner of the domain can record both the PSTN telephone number and VoIP address against the ENUM domain. This allows people to use traditional telephone numbering systems to connect VoIP phones, without needing the PSTN to find the corresponding phones.
The implication is that users with an ENUM-aware VoIP phone, can access any registered user over the internet without use of the traditional PSTN network. Users simply dial a telephone number in the traditional manner - it is then transformed into an ENUM domain name. A look up is then carried out and the call is routed according to the specific indications set by the user. If the number called is not in the ENUM database, then the call will proceed to the person's non-VoIP telephone and be charged in the normal way.
Another feature of the ENUM protocol is that users can register multiple resource addresses in their ENUM domain such as VoIP servers, mobiles, email, websites etc. This enables the possibility to converge the multiple types of communications to one telephone number and for new services to be created to exploit this.
For example, a person may choose a VoIP option from a returned ENUM query to reduce call costs. Or present a caller who queries their ENUM domain with the type of communication that they are available on at different times of the day, e.g. Provide telephone numbers and emails in business hours and only email address out of work hours.
As consumers, these types of services will become invaluable as we begin to use IP communications in all devices and have more addresses for each contact in their communications portfolio. A service provider that offers subscribers effective and cost efficient management of their communications will build loyalty by providing tangible benefits and be able to charge for this value.
This is a significant move away from the traditional business model of communications providers as it places more emphasis on these value services than call charges. There are service providers who argue against the use of Public ENUM due to the fear of the control that it presents to users. These service providers may choose to exploit the benefits of ENUM via a private ENUM registry. This offers the service provider the opportunity to protect the existing telecoms business models and other commercial information.
However, it is yet to be proved whether users are looking to manage their own service or if they are prepared to pay for services that help them control their communications from a service provider via their Public ENUM. Certainly the argument for call charges is diminishing as more minutes are added to inclusive deals, Ofcom in the UK reports that in 2008 a mere 14% of pay monthly mobile subscribers claim that they usually exceed their inclusive minutes.
Another example of the dilemma that the convergence presents that the current influx of mobile VoIP applications has put many mobile providers in fear of losing revenue, and caused a number of carriers to block VoIP calls over 3G. In April this year, this led the European Union to consider a ban on carrier VoIP filtering. Should this proposal be passed by the commission, users will have widespread access to a variety of free calling tools, making IP communications technology more commonly understood and used. At this point, having an ENUM enabled mobile phone would become a very powerful business tool, and open the door to broad consumer use.
It is clear that an IP connectivity technology such as ENUM is central to the continued development and convergence of telecommunications and internet technologies.
For the full advantages of Public ENUM to be realised, a sizeable group of users need to have registered their numbers and be able to perform ENUM look ups. There is some debate about how and when this will happen. It may take an application or service that really taps into business drivers to propel widespread adoption. This could be realised via any number of tools that bring ENUM into the consumers' consciousness, in the same way that certain VoIP products in the internet space have made IP telephony accessible for everyday users.
In contrast to public ENUM, private ENUM tips the balance in favour of the provider. It gives suppliers the ability to manage the service and therefore the customer and also retain more control over revenue streams.
With consumers now more aware of choice than ever, it is vital that telecommunications providers offer user centric products to retain existing customers and win new ones. At a time when all business is more competitive than ever before, these issues should have a considerable influence when deciding what product set to offer customers.
Consumers are no longer happy to just accept traditional service offerings that provide the best benefits to the supplier. They have learnt from competition and the internet that there is another way. Customers are concerned not just with the current offering, but also how that impacts on the future development of products, services and applications. A communications strategy is central to the success of any business, so being at the forefront of technology and having the ability to adapt to future developments is vital to continued success.
Opening up IP connectivity, using Public ENUM, supports the continued innovation and evolution of the telecommunications market. It establishes opportunities for applications to be developed that will benefit users in new ways and create openings in the market for new business models.
Public ENUM has the advantage of being readily available, cheap to provide and is already deployed. It sits comfortably alongside existing communications services, and enabling suppliers to offer truly converged communications that adopt the best features of both the telecommunications network and the internet.
There are a number of forces in both the telecommunications and internet markets that will decide the future direction of ENUM's role in converging communications. Undoubtedly one of these will be consumer demand. If business users realise the potential of Public ENUM and demand a service that gives them control of their communications, the type of service they've learnt to expect from the internet, suppliers will need to meet this need to retain business. What's clear is that Public ENUM presents the possibility of a myriad of solutions and applications that suppliers may not even have begun to realise.
Phil Kingsland is Director of Marketing and Communications, Nominet UK