A system for devices of the future

A few weeks ago, technologists from around the world made an annual pilgrimage to an event that has become sacred to many of us in the technology industry– the Consumer Electronics Show. Every January, we descend on Las Vegas to see the latest and greatest gadgets, technologies, applications and devices firsthand.

Back in the 1990’s, I was on a team of innovators that had a vision of all kinds of devices connected to the network to provide better services to customers. Today this is becoming reality. Whether it’s the ovens that can be controlled by apps on your phone or smart onesies that transmit the baby’s vital signs to a connected coffee pot, IP-enabled devices that make up the emerging “Internet of Things” were the stars in Sin City this year. Meanwhile, according to PEW Research Center, 56 percent of Americans have smartphones, and 34 percent of American adults have tablets, doubling since 2012.

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As more new broadband-connected devices come online, there is a growing need for a robust and reliable infrastructure to support them. The networks that homes and businesses have relied upon for decades are being upgraded to deliver faster, more flexible broadband services. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission’s Technological Advisory Council estimates that while 94 percent of the U.S. population will be served by a wireless or IP-based broadband connection 2018, only 6 percent will use traditional circuit-switched services. Traditional voice telephony is quickly being replaced by broadband-powered voice services and other communications applications, offered over both wired and wireless networks. 

Phone carriers and cable companies have made huge strides in the effort to move to all-IP networks to support consumer demand.  While switching to all-IP networks is largely considered inevitable and crucial for our country’s economic growth and ability to out-innovate other nations, it will take both time and coordination within the communications industry.

Today, phone carriers are in different phases of the transition, creating a complex maze when one provider handling IP-based traffic often has to connect a voice call to another provider still operating on the older circuit switched network, or PSTN.  While customers on either network will use phone numbers to dial a call, the IP network cannot route that call without the translation of that number into an IP address.  A central mechanism to convert traditional phone numbers into IP-based addresses and numbers is needed. To ensure calls can be routed seamlessly between providers, even if both offer IP-based services, calls often have to be converted from IP packets back to a format that can travel over the legacy circuit-switched network, only to be reconverted to IP packets to be completed.

Obviously, this is far from efficient. It’s similar to asking a driver on a cross-country trip to ditch the car and paddle a boat across every river and lake, only to get back into a car when reaching land again. Bridges connecting all roads creates a more seamless interstate highway infrastructure.

One possible solution for bridging the gaps that currently exist in our nation’s telecommunications networks is to create a central database mapping IP to traditional numbers, allowing providers to route traffic no matter what its destination or which type of technology is used. As the core communications network shifts to IP, this database, run by a neutral third party so all service providers get equal treatment, would ensure traffic is routed across networks efficiently. This would help reduce the cost of telecommunications and also help improve the quality and expand the services offered to consumers.

A database of this type already exists, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Known as the Number Portability Administration Center, it allows customers to take a phone number assigned by one provider and transfer it to another, fostering competition. It’s an incredibly sophisticated system to which all North American service providers already connect. By adding IP addresses to the database, it could serve as the central clearinghouse to integrate IP address and PSTN numbers, ensuring a reliable experience for consumers tomorrow, just as it has done for the past 17 years.

There is no question that transitioning to an all-digital national infrastructure is the right direction for the communications industry and will be an important driver of innovation for years to come. While we don’t know what devices and applications we’ll find at next year’s CES, not to mention 10 years from now, we do know that if innovators can dream it up, our infrastructure needs to be able to support it.

Bregman is the chief technology officer of Neustar, an information services and data analytics company that has served as a neutral, third-party partner for the communications industry by running the Number Portability Administration Center for the past 17 years. Bregman is a member of the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council, which assists the FCC in identifying innovation and developing policies to support U.S. economic competitiveness.