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A snapshot of the technological world in 2003

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An extensive and wide-ranging report to the European Commission is a must-read for anyone interested in the future of ENUM, Internet phones, Instant Messaging, mobile phones and the Internet in general.

The 161-page report [pdf], written by Joe McNamee and Tiina Satuli of Political Intelligence, is intended as a guide to possible future regulation by Europe regarding new and emerging technologies and will be debated in Brussels on 14 October.

It is a wieldy document but considering the sheer quantity of material covered, maintains an admirable level of coherence in an objective, clear and concise manner. It also pulls no punches, lambasting numerous international companies and bodies for their occasional failures to act in society's, and sometimes their own, best interests.

So what does it say?

Well, as itself admits, "the conclusions to be drawn... are in the form of questions rather than answers". While in the ideal world the report would point to what will happen in the future, it is infinitely more useful because it doesn't make the mistake that many have made in the past - trying to predict the unpredictable. Instead, it gives an excellent overview of where we are, how we got here and what will need to happen before we progress down one of a dozen different routes.

The key word here is "convergence" - covergence of old telephony with Internet technology; with email and mobile phones; with text, pictures, voice - in short, data. It is titled "Policy Implications of Convergence of Naming, Numbering and Addressing: An Orientation". Its broad conclusion is that we don't know what will happen except for the fact that without intelligent, informed and careful observation and occasional controls we are heading for a huge technological car crash as previously separate markets end up at the same crossroads, each demanding a right of way.

The two biggest cars, or rather lorries, heading straight for each other are the Internet and the phone network. In fact, their cultures. The telephone network that has been in use for 100 years and enables us to speak to someone on the other side of the world within seconds has been built though a rigid, hierarchical and government-led structure, with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) at its centre. The Internet on the other hand has been built by a series of loosely defined organisations and companies, with relatively new organisation ICANN attempting to put itself at the centre and having varied success.

Both have been enormously successful and neither is likely to get out the other's way unless there is some sort of understanding and mediation.

Convergence - meaning telephone calls routed over the Internet at reduced cost, mobile phones sending and receiving data and basically people being able to communicate using whatever device comes to hand - will inevitably mean that ways of linking old and new technologies will arrive.

The process by which they arrive though is the vital issue. If all the technologies are allowed to run headlong into each other, we will see one or two lorries emerging creaking and smashed up on bald tyres and the odd sports car written off. With some assistance however, we could have only minor scrapes and dents and everyone will benefit as a whole. But enough of the car analogies.

ENUM - blessing or hindrance?

ENUM is a given a lot of time in the report, possibly because it most clearly represents all the difficulties and arguments that lie ahead. ENUM is the proposed system by which a single number will be translated into the DNS system that the Internet runs on so there will be a single point of contact for an individual, be it telephone, mobile, instant messaging, email, even an Internet site.

The idea of a single point of contact is so enticing as to be mesmerising but, as the report makes clear, it throws up an enormous array of issues and not one person has yet to come up with a feasible way in which this could be practically managed. Who, for example, would be in charge of the numbers? Translating a number into the DNS system could put it under ICANN's power. But then the ITU is pushing a path by which it has control over the numbers. What would be the process by which an individual gets hold of their number? Do they apply themselves directly, or through a service provider, or their country's government? Any form of control is not only power and money but it is also a crippling advantage over everyone else. Is there any way in which there doesn't have to be a winner and a loser?

The report goes into great depth over what people are trying and outlines their intrisic biases in each case. The ITU for example claims that creating a top-level Internet domain (.tel) would be to give unfair monopolistic power to one company. It is not so altruistic though when it comes to its solution that would give it sole control.

In fact, if there is a one fault with the report it is its schizophrenic approach to the issue of ENUM. At one point, the entire system appears to be written off in preference to other emerging technologies such as SIP and Instant Messaging. But then it goes on to devote pages to how ENUM may be introduced. It is very possible that the implementation or not of ENUM could be the defining moment for the next 50 years of communication. Even though, as the report argues, it is likely to be no more than a transitory technology.

Instant Messaging - a sign of things to come?

A lot of space is also given to Instant Messaging, mostly in relation to what the emergence of this extremely popular and useful technology tells us about the market. The writers find the unwillingness of IM providers to interoperate incomprehensible. Particularly AOL, which has gone out of its way to make sure that its product will not work with the other players in the market: Microsoft, Yahoo and Lotus.

IM would be vastly more useful if it worked ubiquitously, especially with all the extra features now added to this instant form of communication acting as a differentiator. But AOL clearly sees the advantages of tying people to its technology outweigh the disadvantages of propietary technology. It is a situation that may hold many lessons in future.

GPRS is another interesting one. It exists as a mobile phone protocol that enables people to assess information on the Internet. However, it is a monopoly and cleverly bypasses ICANN by running through its own alternative .gprs top-level domain. What does this tells us about possible approaches to new technologies? Is there always a way around controlling (and possibly restrictive) powers? Is this is a healthy state of affairs or are we missing out by not getting organisations to work together? And what, if any, control can be put on people to stop them abusing their position?

ITU and ICANN - let battle commence

Some time is given to a debate about the relative merits of the ICANN and ITU approaches. Yes, ICANN is scrappy, legally questionable and weak in many areas but due to its form, dozens of companies and organisations have been to apply their creative talents and the staggering advances in Internet technology are testiment to the fact.

ITU is stronger, more stable, proven. But then it can also be painfully slow and sometimes not reach agreement at all. Even if it does agree, countries have no obligation to actually follow what it decides. And it also often criticised as being unfairly swayed by the opinions of the status quo. Is there any way in which those two vastly different entities can be made to work together?

Voice over IP remains a hot potato. Just recently, a number of major computer companies have put their behind the technology that runs voice calls over the Internet - usually at significantly lower cost. Since voice can very easily be digitised, it makes perfect sense that it could be sent using the same channels as other data. Plus, it gives those in the Internet world a whole, potentially vast new stream of revenue. Old-style telephone companies are, unsurprisingly, not enamoured. But then they're not stupid either - many have subsidiaries that work in this very area. At what point do they help rather than hinder the uptake of this technology?

And then, of course, there is the all-consuming issue of privacy. Microsoft's Passport system comes in for some highly cautious reviewing. And for good reason - it is only a matter of time before the Beast of Redmond inserts a clause claiming rights to your first-born somewhere in its software licence. The convergence of technology brings with it a vastly increased risk that people's personal details can be disseminated, picked up, sold and abused like never before. The law has moved fairly swiftly and decisively in recognising people's rights to privacy in a modern, computer-led world but it will need to keep a very careful eye on new technologies to makes sure its aims and intentions are met.

Conclusions and recommendations

Since the report's intention is to aid decision-makers in Brussels to work out how and where new laws should be introduced to protect citizens while encouraging new useful technologies, it fortunately doesn't forget to throw in a few pointers.

There is some discussion over whether laws are needed before these technologies arrive in order to lead them down the right path or whether laws designed to deal with mishaps as they occur are more suitable.

However, the crux of the report is fairly clearly spelled out in bold text.

  • Convergence is going to happen, so we should get ready for it

  • Regulation and careful monitoring is essential if abuses and possible market collapses are to be prevented

  • The first and most challenging step will be to understand what the technologies are and what exactly is going on

  • Policies have to be independent of whatever is going on in the market at the moment and be technologically neutral

  • It is essential that "legal certainty, competitive neutrality and coordination be given absolute priority"

  • Further in-depth study and far greater debate is needed

With relation to specific technologies:

  • A "spontaneous" ENUM market isn't going to happen. ENUM is no more than an extension of existing services, limiting the amount regulatory power that can be applied to it

  • It is "very unclear" how the Instant Messaging market will turn out. Microsoft is trying to take over, AOL is in a very strong position, it may all come good in the end

  • SMS messages and VoIP calls that are ended on the traditional phone network need careful review under existing laws

If you want to learn more - highly recommended since this story is no more than a summary of the report's most salient points - the report can be downloaded in pdf format

here

. ®

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