The new directory assistance

December 10, 2009: 9:00 AM ET

Today's interoperability technologies help spawn 'frictionless innovation.'

By Jeffrey E. Ganek, chairman and CEO, Neustar

Ganek: Standards let companies focus on innovation. Photo: Neustar.

I am sure we have all heard it said (and said ourselves): "Just give me a level playing field!"  The speaker might be talking about government regulation, contract negotiations, marketing spend or even customer expectations, but in all situations "taking the pitch out of the pitch" helps businesses properly allocate resources, effectively direct the marketing spend and more quickly develop new products.  It also allows us to compete directly on the power of our ideas.

In technology, the strong tradition of standards bodies has helped immeasurably to turn ideas into new products.  Standards have helped level the playing field.  As a result, we have the interoperability, compatibility and integration of new technologies that are essential to the health of the industry and key to its role in boosting productivity.

Individual companies can play a just as important role in spurring economic vitality.  I marvel at the power of the iPhone as a software development platform, for example.  It offers functionality from more than 100,000 applications that did not exist before Apple and AT&T launched the phone service in spring 2007.  As a company, Apple (AAPL) has leveled the playing field for software application developers and reduced the cost of innovation.

The effect of eliminating market inequalities was never more dramatically felt than with the consumer adoption of the Internet and the development of the World Wide Web.  Viewed first as a new channel for communications, the Internet quickly became a platform for business development and "frictionless commerce."  It is the reason that what used to sound like jargon – "Web 1.0" or "2.0" or "3.0" – has real meaning and is fast becoming part of the popular vernacular.

These and other technology advances spurred innovation and competition in a far broader way than either access to capital or legislation ever could.  The work I did at MCI 25 years ago convinced me that Congress and the courts, by eliminating artificial barriers to competition, could create a better deal for the consumer.  But the work I do today at Neustar (NSR) has convinced me that making it easier for people with ideas to innovate is better business.  Call it a commitment to "frictionless innovation."

Interoperability: not sexy, but essential

If you are unfamiliar with Neustar it is likely because our directory technologies allow companies you do know to deliver many of the services you value and rely on every day.  I can confidently say we "support the infrastructure for communication." But while what we do may seem deep and distant, it's really no further away than your fingertips.

As an example, it may seem an easy task to keep your phone number when moving from one mobile carrier to another, but it is a directory that ensures the calls still connect.  It may seem even easier to type a web address into your computer's browser and be whisked to your destination.  That's a directory, too.  Easiest of all may be hitting the "send" button on an email.  Yes, that's another directory service, whether ours or a competitor's.

More recently, when mobile carriers want to roll out new services, like multi-media service (MMS) that allows photos and video to be sent via text message, it's the directory that connects it - all over Internet Protocol networks.

There was a time when all of those actions would have seemed more like science fiction than a routine part of the business day.  That is the effect of frictionless innovation.  What a person can imagine can be built, deployed and endorsed more quickly than ever before.

What is most exciting is that the pace will only quicken.  As all networks become Internet Protocol networks, as consumers and companies demand more from their devices and service providers (think of the Cloud we hear so much about) and as the number of people with new ideas and the will to pursue them multiply, what does not seem possible today will be common tomorrow.

Here is just one small example that has found a home on one of our whiteboards.  Right now broadcast spectrum is a precious commodity.  Even so there is still television spectrum set-aside in one region to avoid interference with a station using the same spectrum in an adjacent market.

Directories, directories everywhere

Think of where I live in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. corridor.  The NBC affiliate, Channel 4, in Washington, D.C. is assigned spectrum at the higher end of the band between 54 MHz and 72 MHz.  There is no Channel 4 in Baltimore, but there is a Channel 2, at the lower end of that spectrum segment.  As a result, there is no television interference, but that portion of the spectrum is only half used in each market.

Directory technologies can open up that unused spectrum for a host of services that work quite well adjacent to television.  What is now idle could be used to implement high-value, regionalized wireless broadband services.

Directory technology and the proliferation of Internet Protocol networks have combined to make it possible for new ideas to address new opportunities in new ways.  Call it "frictionless innovation".

Ganek is chairman and CEO of Neustar, a Sterling, Va.-based company that provides clearinghouse and directory services to the Internet and communications industries.

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