Tuesday, 10 January, 2017

New telephone number scheme, India's chance to lead?

As a kid, one of the tasks I got every summer was to prepare a dairy of all telephone numbers and postal addresses sorted in alphabetical order. I remember atleast two instances of changes to numbering plan, when Bangalore moved from 5/6digit numbers to 7digits and then to 8 digit telephone numbers.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority Of India (TRAI) has announced setting up a committee to review numbering plans. Quite likely, we will soon have a new numbering plan for the country due to the huge increase in telephone/internet connections in the past decade. Like I did in my childhood, millions of consumers will have to update thousands of contacts on their phone to the new numbers. But since our address books today are digital,you could expect TRAI to provide us an app to update thousands of contacts in one click! The telephony problem too could be solved by a simple redirection database/service.

But a new numbering scheme will still be a huge logistical nightmare for the whole country (and probably a bigger fiasco than the recent currency demonetisation). This is because our phone numbers today are much more than just telephone numbers! To enumerate some

  • Today, a phone number is a person's identity. Whatsapp, BHIM/UPI, and thousands of other applications identify a person by their telephone number. If your telephone number changes, each of these service providers must provide you a mechanism to update your identity, and you must participate if you want to continue to use those services
  • A phone number is also an authentication mechanism - Banks, Aadhar, Gmail etc use the phone to authenticate your transactions (like 2FA), so possessing a number is equivalent of your signature in the old paper world. No piece of software will ever be allowed to update your signature on your behalf, so you must update it yourself manually.
  • A phone number is also used as a hidden/back-up auth mechanism. Should you forget your google or facebook login password, you can reset it with a code sent as a SMS to your telephone number. Quite likely, you wont update them if you don't even login to that service for a long time. And you probably don't even remember all the services with which you have shared your telephone number!
So, whats the primary requirement on the new numbering scheme? Traditionally, they got a volume projection (or total number of connections) as the primary requirement, such as to support 1 billion telephone numbers. Any such volume projection can get exhausted in a decade due to changing technology/lifestyles. What if all automobiles, consumer electronic gadgets at home and other "things" need a telephone number in future for internet connectivity? Can we afford to force so much "unproductive" work on all our people every decade?

So, the primary requirement for the new numbering scheme would be perpetual scalability. Traditional call routing on analog exchanges enforced a fixed number of digits. Digital exchanges with routing implemented in software need not have such limitations. They have to take inspiration from email address scheme; our grand-children could possibly use the same scheme, albeit with  longer ids/addresses.

I haven't come across any nation that has defined such a numbering scheme, without assuming a fixed/maximum number of digits in telephone numbers. TRAI has a chance to lead the world into the future, and I hope they do latch onto it.