The Rise of the iNum (international Number)
Or, I'd Like to Make a Local Call... to Poland
Most people are just beginning to wrap their heads around the concept of VoIP. I imagine their heads would explode if they learned about the iNum, which is essentially a country code for the Internet. Yes, that's right, a country code for the vast no man's land that is the Internet.
However, for those who are forward-thinking (or just have lots of friends and relatives in far-flung locales and are tired of dialing various country codes), the iNum is a welcome concept in global telephone service. I mean, really, dialing 011 + 39 + your second cousin Luigi's local (VoIP) phone number is a bit cumbersome, and if you're also calling your aunt in Scotland and your best friend who relocated to Australia on a regular basis... Well, it all gets to be a bit much, trying to keep track of all the country (and sometimes city) codes.
International Calling Made Easy
I'm all for things that make life simpler, which is why I'm so grateful for adhesive stamps and wireless routers, among other things. An iNum, in theory (and in limited practice, up until relatively recently), is also easy. An iNum is something that makes international calling, or at least international dialing, infinitely easier. And frequently (such as when using Google Voice to call an iNum), it's free. And what's better than free when it comes to international calling? Not much!
Plus, lately it's gotten a lot easier to dial an iNum directly (as opposed to a local access number) as more and more VoIP telephone service providers issue large blocks of free iNum numbers. Still, until iNum numbers are recognized by all telephone service providers, the full potential of the prefix for international calling remains unrealized.
The iNum Experiences Rapid Growth
The good news is that there are signs that iNum numbers are finally coming into their own. As VoIP use worldwide increases in popularity, so, too, does the iNum concept — thanks primarily to the evangelism (and calculated leverage) of VoIP wholesaler Voxbone, which has somewhat of a monopoly on iNum allocation, and the distribution network (business partnerships) to make it happen.
As a result, the slow adoption rate is speeding up, which means that eventually every VoIP user could have a designated iNum. And that means a portable, permanently associated phone number that is provider independent and can be reached from anywhere. Even through the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Well, that's the dream at any rate.
Signs that Voxbone's iNum Initiative is Picking up Speed
Sonetel, a Swedish VoIP provider offering hosted PBX services to small and medium businesses (SMBs), recently issued all of its subscribers a free iNum. That's about 40,000 existing customers, with an additional 200-300 customers registering daily. Sonetel has a large presence in Asia and Africa, where inexpensive VoIP services are an increasingly popular alternative to expensive and less-accessible terrestrial phone service.
Since 2010, Sonetel's partnership with Voxbone has resulted in 17,000 iNums, so the recent decision to carpet bomb their user base with iNum numbers represents not only a significant increase in iNum distribution, but perhaps a seachange in iNum recognition worldwide. Sonetel has customers in 200 countries, so it certainly expands iNum's international network coverage.
V-Global is another provider now offering free iNum numbers to customers, and connecting VoIP calls to iNum numbers for free.
Voxbone has also issued exclusive 888 iNum numbers to the UN for disaster relief, and garnered support from Google and Skype for the purpose: Google Voice and Skype both route calls to the charitable iNum numbers for free, in addition to the 883 numbers they support for regular VoIP customers with an iNum (global phone service using Skype and an 883 iNum does involve a per minute rate).
This Sounds Great, but... What Exactly Is an iNum?
How does an iNum simplify international calling using VoIP? Well, an iNum is location-independent as a country code. So rather than having a country code of 54 for Argentina and 49 for Germany, a person using VoIP phone service with an iNum living in either of those countries would have a code of 883. They'd also have that iNum of 883 if they traveled to Spain, or moved to Guam. Therein lies the magic of the iNum! It's unique and portable.
Therefore, just in terms of the number of digits you have to keep track of, iNum numbers would be a welcome relief to overtaxed memories and index fingers everywhere. Introduce the concept of local phone service for international calls on top of that (iNum to iNum calls are free), and you have information overload for most people. And also, a sure-fire winner in global telephone service.
How Does an iNum Work?
The iNum (a 15-digit number) eradicates borders with a single country code for any VoIP phone service user who registers their VoIP phone number. You know how they say that on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog? Well, on the Internet — using an iNum and making VoIP calls — no one knows you're in Cote d'Ivoire. Or Portugal. Or Yonkers.
The iNum assigns one 'country' code to everyone with an iNum. Your 'country' is the Internet, and the Internet is everywhere. So, take your iNum with you. With an iNum, it doesn't matter if you're calling from France to Yemen, or Algeria to Canada. An iNum is an iNum is an iNum.
The iNum is essentially assigned to a technology rather than to a fixed geographical point. Your actual location may be fluid, but as long as you're making and receiving VoIP calls, your calling origin/terminus is the Internet. The iNum is only the second time a country code has been assigned to a technology rather than an actual country. (The first was Inmarsat.)
Calling an iNum
The universality of the iNum is definitely appealing, but expansion and adoption is still an ongoing process. You can call an iNum from anywhere, but at the moment it isn't always a free call. There are basically three tiers of iNum support:
- iNum Provider
- iNum Routing Service
- iNum Access Number
iNum Routing Service Some landline carriers or VoIP services (such as Skype) aren't iNum providers but support the iNum Initiative by routing calls to iNum numbers. Some (such as Google Talk and Google Voice) do this for free. Others, like Skype, Rebtel, Sprint, and British Telecom, charge low per minute charges.
iNum Access Number Although it's grown quickly over the past 5 years, the iNum Initiative doesn't yet have the full participation of every phone network around the world. Still, iNum numbers can be accessed even when your VoIP provider doesn't support iNum numbers or you're using a regular landline — you just have to dial a local access number first. (For instance, if you lived in Rio de Janeiro and wanted to call an iNum, you would have to call +55 2135219966 first.) This makes an international call available at the cost of a local call.
The iNum Initiative: How the iNum Evolved
The innovator behind the iNum concept is Voxbone. Voxbone is an international VoIP wholesaler specializing in providing VoIP telephone service providers and other businesses with DIDs, both geographical and toll free.
Voxbone customers include Skype and other major VoIP providers, which made it uniquely positioned to establish, promote, and essentially facilitate the iNum Initiative starting with VoIP-to-VoIP calls.
Voxbone first lobbied the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for a global country code in 2006. The ITU assigned 883 to the Internet in 2007, and assigned Voxbone a segment of the iNum prefixes (883 5100) to allocate. The iNum Initiative was officially launched in 2008.
Voxbone started the slow rollout of the new by giving iNum numbers to its provider partners for free. Voxbone also handled the VoIP calls using the iNum, allowing it to focus on building the credibility and functionality of the iNum before introducing it to the telephone audience at large.
Of course, the whole iNum plan was somewhat self-serving as well as streamlined. Voxbone took on the burden of creating the iNum Initiative, something the company was well-situated to successfully do as a wholesaler of DIDs, but it also had other plans: Once iNum reached greater popularity and expanded beyond the infrastructural borders of Voxbone to the PSTN, the PSTN carriers would have to pay Voxbone to complete the calls, and then Voxbone would share the revenues with the VoIP companies involved with the iNum Initiative. So, yes, the iNum Initiative does make things simpler for dialers, but it is also a rewarding proposition for Voxbone.
Slow Adoption of the iNum Initiative
The concept of the iNum remained somewhat abstract for a long period of time. Adoption of iNum numbers moved forward at what seemed a glacial rate, which is to say that many carriers wouldn't route calls to iNum numbers at all, especially as they had to pay to do so. This is still true today, although Sprint USA and British Telecom are among the major carriers supporting calls to iNum numbers.
Still, Voxbone has established strategic partnerships with VoIP providers to promote the use of iNum numbers, and that is beginning to show signs of paying off. Five years from the initial allocation of the 883 iNum prefix, and the iNum Initiative is gaining traction, sometimes in large bursts, such as the recent announcement by Sonetel.