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Thursday, 14 June, 2001, 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK
Net promises closer ties
close up of rope pile
The net and phones are getting tied closer together
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Cherish those moments when you can't be reached by e-mail, mobile or pager while you can, because net experts are working on ways to ensure people can always get a message through to you.

Internet engineers are joining forces with phone regulators to develop a system that ties almost every communication network together.

The beauty of Enum is that any device with an IP address can be mapped to any standard telephone number

James Casey, Enum initiative
If the system is widely adopted it will mean that as long as someone has one way of contacting you they will be able to reach you on any network, via any gadget.

Trials of the technology are already underway in the United States.

One of the contradictions of our increasingly connected world is that the more networks and ways of communicating you are hooked into, the harder it can be to get a message through to you.

Closer ties

Anyone who regularly uses the net, has a few e-mail accounts, their own domain, a mobile phone, pager, a fax and an old-fashioned landline will know how frustrating it can be that few of the networks behind these technologies talk to each other.

Sending someone an e-mail message is no use if that person is out of the office all day and can't get to a desktop computer to check mail.

But this could all soon change as an initiative by the Internet Engineering Taskforce seeks to tear down the walls between phone, data and mobile networks.

The IETF is the organisation that is charged with overseeing the technical development of the net. It investigates and approves any bright ideas for improving or extending the reach of the net.

The system the IETF is backing to get all communication networks interconnected is called the Enumbering, or Enum, initiative. The idea behind the Enum initiative is to simply map phone numbers to net addresses in the same way that domain names are mapped to net addresses now.

Whenever you type the domain name of a website you want to visit in a browser, your computer will consult one of 13 root servers around the world to find out which physical computer is hosting that site. Once it has found the net, or IP, address, your computer requests the relevant pages.

Technology trials

The Enum initiative is designed to work the same way with a series of databases around the world that you can consult via fixed phone, mobile, handheld device or net. It finds and puts you in touch with the person you are trying to reach.

Working alongside the databases that translate phone numbers into net addresses and vice versa will be programs that log how you are currently communicating.

Using this information the networks could be told to re-route a fixed phone call to a mobile network, use the net as a transport route for it, or even translate it into a voice message and package it up as an e-mail to forward on to the intended recipient.

"The beauty of Enum is that any device with an IP address can be mapped to any standard telephone number," said James Casey, director of policy and business development at Neustar, one of the backers of the Enum initiative.

Mr Casey says the net engineers are working with the International Telecommunications Union, which regulates phone numbers, on how to make Enum work.

Although some trials are happening now, Mr Casey says he does not expect to see large scale tests of the technology until early 2002.

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