Telcos have embraced an idea to provide everyone in the world with a single contact number, or 'Enum', that will work with all existing methods of contact, such as fixed and mobile phones, emails and text messages.

The premise of Enums, also dubbed 'e-numbers', is to simplify global communication using an 11-digit number which would work as a person's phone, fax and pager number as well as their email address.

BT and other telcos, as well as media giant AOL Time Warner, set up the US government-backed Enum-Forum last week to discuss the introduction of the system. According to published plans, the system would be voluntary, but it is likely to be backed with vast amounts of capital and could become prevalent in the developed world.

But although Enums would undoubtedly simplify communications, detractors claim they will open the doors to a world of spam, swamping users with unsolicited messages across all contact media.

Jaye Muller, founder of J2 Global Communications, went as far as to compare the proposed system to the Stasi, the now defunct East German secret police force. "Enum would be like assigning an espionage agent to track every single person's communications, whatever the type", said Muller.

Originally the idea of Cisco employee Patrik Falstrom, an Enum is designed to work for existing technologies and for any new methods of communication developed in the future. And with 100 billion different combinations for an 11-digit number, there is little danger of a shortage of unique codes.