ENUM and E.164

Although the SIP protocol really doesn’t think in terms of phone numbers, the reality is that phone numbers are not going away any time soon, and if you want to properly integrate a VoIP system with as many telephone networks as possible, you’re going to need to handle the PSTN in some way.

ENUM maps telephone numbers onto the Domain Name System (DNS). In theory, ENUM is a great idea. Why not cut out the PSTN altogether, and simply route phone calls directly between endpoints using the same numbering plan? We’re not sure this idea is ever going to become what the emerging telecom community would like it to be, though. The reason? Nobody really can say who owns phone numbers.

E.164 and the ITU

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a United Nations agency that is actually older than the UN itself. It was founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union. The ITU-T sector, known for many decades as CCITT (Comité consultatif international téléphonique et télégraphique), is the standards body responsible for all of the protocols used by the PSTN, as well as many that are used in VoIP. Prior to the advent of VoIP, the workings of the ITU-T sector were of little interest to the average person, and membership was generally limited to industries and institutions that had a vested interest in telecommunications standards.

ITU standards tend to follow a letter-dot-number format. ITU-T standards you may have heard of include H.323, H.264, G.711, G.729, and so forth.

E.164 is the ITU-T standard that defines the international numbering plan for the PSTN. If you’ve ever used a telephone, you’ve used E.164 addressing.

Each country in the world has been assigned a country code,[114] and control of addressing in those countries is handled by the local authorities.

E.164 numbers are limited to 15 digits in length (excluding the prefix).

In Asterisk, there is nothing special that needs to be done in order to handle E.164 addressing, other than to make sure your dialplan is suitable to the needs of any PSTN-compatible channels you may have.

For example, if you’re operating in a NANP country, you will probably need to have the following pattern matches:


In the UK, you might need something more like this:


And in Australia, your dialplan might have these pattern matches:



Please don’t just copy and paste these pattern matches into your dialplan. The peculiarities of regional dialplans are tricky, and change constantly. One important item that needs to be carefully considered is the region-specific number for emergency calling, as discussed in the section called “Emergency Dialing”. You don’t want to get this stuff wrong.


In order to allow the mapping of E.164 numbers onto the DNS namespace, a way of representing phone numbers as DNS names had to be devised.

This concept is defined in RFC 3761, helpfully named “The E.164 to Uniform Resource Identifiers (URI) Dynamic Delegation Discovery System (DDDS) Application (ENUM).” ENUM reportedly stands for Electronic NUmber Mapping.

According to the RFC, converting a phone number into an ENUM-compatible address requires the following algorithm:

1. Remove all characters with the exception of the digits.
For example, the First Well Known Rule produced the Key
"+442079460148".  This step would simply remove the
leading "+", producing "442079460148".

2. Put dots (".") between each digit. Example:

3. Reverse the order of the digits. Example:

4. Append the string ".e164.arpa" to the end.  Example:

Clear as mud?

ENUM has not taken off. The reasons appear to be mostly political in nature. The problem stems from the fact that there is no one organization that controls numbering on the PSTN the way that IANA does for the Internet. Since no one entity has a clear mandate for managing E.164 numbers globally, the challenge of maintaining an accurate and authoritative database for ENUM has proved elusive.

Some countries in Europe have done a good job of delivering reliable ENUM databases, but in country code 1 (NANP), which contains multiple countries and therefore multiple regulatory bodies, the situation has become an illogical mess. This is hardly surprising, since the carriers that control E.164 addressing can’t reasonably be expected to get enthusiastic about allowing you to bypass their networks. The organizations responsible for implementing ENUM in North America have tended to work toward creating a PSTN on the Internet, which could save them money, but not you or I.

This is not at all what is wanted. Why would I want to route VoIP calls from my system to yours across a network that wants to charge me for the privilege? SIP is designed to route calls between endpoints, and has no real use for the concept of a carrier.

The advantage of all this is supposed to be that when an ENUM lookup is performed, a valid SIP URI is returned.

Asterisk and ENUM

Asterisk can perform lookups against ENUM databases using either the ENUMLOOKUP() function or a combination of the ENUMQUERY() and ENUMRESULT() dialplan functions. ENUMLOOKUP() only returns a single value back from the lookup, and is useful when you know there is likely to only be one return value (such as the SIP URI you want the system to dial), or if you simply want to get the number of records available.

An ENUM lookup in the dialplan might look like this:

exten => _X.,1,Set(CurrentExten=${FILTER(0-9,${EXTEN})})
   same => n,Set(LookupResult=${ENUMLOOKUP(${CurrentExten},sip,,,e164.arpa)})
   same => n,GotoIf($[${EXISTS(${LookupResult})}]?HaveLocation,1)
   same => n,Set(LookupResult=${ENUMLOOKUP(${CurrentExten},sip,,,e164.org)})
   same => n,GotoIf($[${ISNULL(${LookupResult})}]?NormalCall,1:HaveLocation,1)

exten => HaveLocation,1,Verbose(2,Handle dialing via SIP URI returned)
   exten => ...

exten => NormalCall,1,Verbose(2,Handle dialing via standard PSTN route)
   exten => ...

The dialplan code we just looked at will take the number dialed and pass it to the ENUMLOOKUP() function. It requests the method type to be sip (we want the SIP URI returned) and the lookup to be performed first against the listings in DNS found in the e164.arpa zone, and next against the records found at http://www.e164.org.

Outside the countries that have implemented it, there is little uptake of ENUM. As such, many ENUM queries will not return any results. This is not expected to change in the near future, and ENUM will remain a curiosity until more widely implemented.

[114] With the exception of 24 countries and territories in country code 1, which are all part of the North American Numbering Plan Authority (NANPA).