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When the PSTN leaves, will your phone number stay?

telephone numbers As the public switched telephone network (PSTN) blinks out of existence, carriers are left wondering what will become of it’s by-product: the telephone number. Will it go down with the ship, or will it become the life raft — connecting islands of communications?

I called on Voxbone’s vice president of Strategic Alliances, Hugh Goldstein, to answer this question. He took part in a panel discussion yesterday at ITEXPO in Las Vegas on the future of the phone number. Here’s what he had to say:

How will telephone numbers be common denominators between networks?

Hugh Goldstein: Voxbone has a big vested interest in this question because we’ve built a business around telephone numbers. The thing is that telephone numbers are very useful, yet they’re linked to this legacy system that a lot of thought leaders in the industry believe will eventually go away. So there’s a big debate from people at industry conferences on what the future will look like for telephone numbers. For the next 10-20 years, I expect everyone is going to continue to see telephone numbers in their daily lives. Part of the reason is that it’s the common denominator between networks. When we have islands of IP communications we can use any [connector] you like — some SIP networks use email-address-like identifiers. If you have a provider, whether it be an over-the-top (OTT) service like Skype, or you have an enterprise that’s built its own private network, they can use [that identifier language] within their own island. But when they want to go outside of that island, the telephone number is the common denominator. That’s what everyone uses to find the destination for a call to make communication work.

What might be the long term solution for connecting disparate communication systems?

Goldstein: Long term, there might be other systems that become popular. But at this point in time it’s difficult for any one new paradigm to really take a strong position unless there is a huge critical mass of customers just getting on board with it. Even though Skype has many hundreds of millions of users, there’s not any big push to make a Skype ID the new telephone number, because it’s attached to one individual company and it’s proprietary. Telephone numbers are international, regulated — the property of countries essentially — and they’re managed by international organizations regulators, so they’re viewed as being neutral. That’s a very strong attribute, even though we’re seeing lots of ideas come about. It’s still the telephone number that sits in front of a lot of IP services today.

Why might telephone numbers be replaced?

Goldstein: If there’s a complaint about telephone numbers, it’s that they’re not that easy to remember by people. People prefer language-based things. [But] if that’s the complaint of telephone numbers, an IP address of the length of IPv6 complexity would be worse. We all have lots of other different identifiers that are useful for us, like Facebook names, email addresses, [and] Skype names, but the telephone number is something that can link everything together.

How are telephone numbers being used as the common denominator between networks today? 

Goldstein: One thing we find in our business [for OTT providers] is that businesses like to have numbers in different geographies. It’s something that helps them deal with global markets. So if you run a business in L.A. and you sell to people in Japan, France and Brazil, [and] if you only put an L.A. number there, it’s still difficult for people around the world to call an L.A. number. It’s a perceived economic barrier. Not everyone’s phone plans allows them to call international. Some of them feel reluctant to dial that international number. Maybe there’s perceived language issues. But let’s say in that scenario they put a Japanese, French and Brazilian number up on their webpage — that opens up the game and allows people in those markets to call and interact to do business with them. [For] Voxbone and other OTT providers like us, the cost to add numbers like that … is very low. So a lot of over-the-top and hosted PBX providers, I think they’ve found this as something that customers like. For their businesses, it’s a way to increase the average revenue per user, because that business is very competitive based on price, so there’s a certain amount that you can realistically charge for a phone line and voicemail. But now with international numbers, suddenly that customer in L.A. is [saying;] ‘I’ll upgrade my account, and I’ll add the number in Tokyo, Rio and Paris, and they see a lot of value in doing that. That’s what’s happening today and that illustrates to an extent why [phone] numbers are still very important.

Continue this interview: Calling all OTT providers: Enterprises want your UC services!

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