Net phone company dials without a license

Agency that dispenses telephone numbers grants some to an unlicensed VoIP provider, a sign that times are changing.

The caretaker for North America's 10-digit telephone numbers recently assigned a few thousand numbers to an unlicensed Internet phone company, a sign the agency is willing to deal directly with a new generation of communications providers.

Until being approached by Net phone operator LibreTel, the North American Numbering Plan Administration distributed numbers only to entities with government telephone operator licenses. LibreTel is unlicensed, like most other providers of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which is software that allows an Internet connection to double as a telephone line.

Typically, VoIP providers must get phone numbers from intermediaries like the four elite local phone companies, collectively known as the Baby Bells. But under these arrangements, VoIP operators have to buy access to the operators' voice network, which is often unnecessary. Only the biggest, such as Vonage , which has 500,000 subscribers, can afford to do so.

The number-crunching may play a key role in the development of VoIP--an inexpensive form of telephony that's based on the same principles as the Internet--and as a result actually make telephone numbers obsolete. Rather, VoIP "dials" the unique set of numbers assigned to every Internet-connected device, otherwise known as the Internet Protocol ( IP ) address. But to get in-bound calls from "off Net" cell or landline phones, VoIP users must have traditional phone numbers because they contain critical routing instructions used by traditional phone operators.

"This decision is sending a strong message to regulators and the wireline industry that we will not tolerate their absurd perpetuation of, and efforts to drag us into, an intercarrier compensation regime that attempts to gouge the rest of us in the communications industry," said Jonathan Askin, general counsel at Pulver.com, an affiliate of LibreTel.

LibreTel managed it all with a bit of regulatory sleight of hand. Key was pointing out to the telephone number administrators that there's no explicit obligation for an entity to be a telecommunications provider to approach them. The major trick then became devising a way for an unlicensed operator to apply for numbers.

"The application process was not in place to smoothly allow a noncarrier to obtain numbers," Askin said.

LibreTel targeted 10-digit numbers with area codes that were not assigned a specific geographic area. That's very much in line with VoIP itself, which can be accessed from any broadband connection. The few thousand numbers LibreTel was granted all begin 1-500-VON.

The next step, says Jeff Pulver, the VoIP cognoscente and LibreTel co-creator, is for a non-VoIP operator to let subscribers dial the 1-500 numbers. Pulver said he hopes to convince at least one major U.S. cell phone operator to do so in the next few days at the VON Spring 2005 VoIP trade show.

Once the agreements are reached, cell phone subscribers could dial one of the 1-500 numbers and reach a LibreTel devotee, regardless of where they are in the world. But so far, there have been no takers.

"Right now, I'm a man without a country," Pulver said. "I've got telephone numbers without anybody that can call them."

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