This article was authored by Jouko Ahvenainen, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.
I have just traveled in Asia. I had to coordinate many meetings, and many contacts said “this is my number, let’s exchange details in WhatsApp, what’s your number?” The problem is that I have several phones and also, when I travel, I buy local pre-paid cards. So, I’m almost always online, but I don’t know the phone number beforehand. Why we still are stuck with these phone numbers?
Years ago, when I worked for Nokia Networks, I learned something about telephone numbering. Or almost too much, including its history, numbering schemas, and how it must be compatible with all kind of stone-age switching machines. I was even responsible for Nokia’s number portability products for some time, when Intelligent Networks were something fancy, but not so intelligent. So you were able to leave your old carrier and move your old number to a new carrier.
Nowadays, although I’m not an expert of those anymore, telephone networks also use packet switching. But still they must have telephone numbers for calls. I understand it will take some time until we can get rid of the numbers in the telephone calls, if anybody still makes old fashioned calls.
It is not my main goal to remove numbers from the telephone calls immediately. But a fact is that in chatting and communication apps on phones they don’t make any sense. There could be many other ways to identify users in them as we have in email, Skype, and e.g. Google Hangout.
Carriers have always been worried about alternative ways to make calls. Many carriers have tried to make the life of Skype complex. Sometimes they have been even hostile to services and apps that could enable people to make free calls. They have tried to pressure these communication (or as carriers maybe still call them VoIP) services and at least tie services to their phone number and also limit, what kind of calls can be done.
It is a similar situation with carriers forcing people in some countries to take a landline phone to get broadband. This was still the case the last time I signed up to a broadband service in the UK. Of course, I complained about this, and the operator’s agent with his poker face tried to explain me that it is technically impossible to identify my broadband line if I have no telephone number. Seriously, it’s almost too funny.
I understand the ‘old guys’ want to protect their positions. It is like in FinTech, where I now spend most of my time – banks can explain that you cannot pay or transfer money if you don’t have an old-fashioned account number. The bank account numbers actually come from the first computers banks adopted probably in the 1950’s and they were not able to identify users by name. But now we have also other ways, including an email address or chat name, to send money.
Anyway, typically it doesn’t help in long run to get stuck with old things and focus on protecting your old position, when other guys innovate totally new things. I would say the carriers have lost the game in terms of making money with calls. I know it is still significant revenue and some people use phone calls the rest of their life, but it is not the area to put your effort.
Some phone companies, including Apple, would also like to get rid of SIM cards and enable phone users to choose from their handset which carrier they want to use today. Those devices are basically data terminals nowadays, and it could be as easy as log into a Wi-Fi network to log into a mobile network. Those regulators that once wanted to get the number portability should now focus to get this kind of competition.
So, my proposal is that we stop playing with telephone numbers. Only some strange sales guys (modern sales guys also use other methods to contact me) and a plumber call me anymore; communications has changed. We can still keep the numbers in the telephone network, but we should stop forcing the use of them in apps and other applications that are really based on IP addresses and user ID’s. Maybe all carrier people don’t like this idea, but I still believe carriers have much to do to offer new and better data services, enable IoT properly, and let people to do much more with their mobile and broadband. Sometimes it is just better to sever the ties to the past.
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I do not want to associate all online communications with an email for anonymity purposes. Using a single identifier, whether email or SSN, is dangerous in the age of digital surveillance. Not only from a big brother perspective, but from online harassment and public identity protection (theft) perspectives. Further, email addresses don’t take a whole lot of verification to setup. Say you have a child who is not of age, and a malicious sort creates an email address in their name (very easy to do, who checks birth certificates or other state issued ID for email accounts?). This can be used as the basis for identity theft. This already happens with SSN, which are much harder to get. Convergence in the digital realm threatens privacy and identification. Before we go down that route, our relatively weak implementation of AAA online needs to be strengthened and require some sort of human gateway to prevent rampant stolen identities, harassment, and lack of personal privacy abuses.