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Privatizing the ITU-T: Back to the Future

The awkwardly named International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) by any measure is a highly unusual body. It is the only global intergovernmental organization where Nation States produce detailed technical standards for telecommunications. Even more amazing is that it produces these standards for a field that is so dynamic and globally competitive as telecommunications.

What is not well known is that the ITU-T was once a private standards body. Created in 1924 among European telephony providers and vendors, the Paris-based organization was forced against considerable opposition in 1949 to become an intergovernmental body under the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The action occurred during the heydays of intergovernmental organization creation when huge global government was seen as the salvation of the world’s problems.

Over the next several decades, the ITU-T began to encounter increasing difficulties as new technologies came on the scene—especially computer networking technology. The organization was comprised largely by government agency members known as Ministries of Post, Telephone, and Telegraph (PTTs) who acted as a worldwide cartel to impede technological change and keep prices artificially high by leveraging a treaty instrument known as the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). A few private national monopolies also existed and represented the nations concerned. To make matters worse, after 1949, the ITU-T was forced to play by U.N. rules that treated every Nation as equivalent and where leader-ship positions were superficially determined as brokered political deals—and this remains the situation today.

The ITU-T also had little ability to deal with new disruptive computer-based technologies such as the Internet, computer applications, or mobile services. With the exception of a few standards platforms brought to the ITU-T from a couple of U.S. companies, by the early 1990s, ITU-T standards activities were a near total failure. Massive ITU-T projects such as the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and Broadband ISDN failed in the market-place. The ITU-T Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) standards also substantially failed compared to the standards of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The monopoly-oriented planning approach of the ITU-T resulted in a belief that global telecommunications technologies and services should be conceived and managed top-down from large, closed, highly-structured standards committees meeting every six months in Geneva.

When a progressive new ITU Secretary-General came to Geneva in 1990, one of the principal new ideas advanced by his staff was a plan called “privatizing the ITU-T.” The general idea was that the ITU-T should have never been forced to become an intergovernmental organization in 1949, and if it was going to have a chance at viability during the 1990s, it should be “spun out” as an independent private organization. Regrettably, the privatization plan never went forward.

The years that followed were not kind to the ITU-T. The entire global mobile telecommunications industry found dramatic success in moving forward with their own standardization bodies, the first started up in the European Telecommunications Standardization Institute (ETSI), the Third-Generation Partnership Project (3GPP)—which today is the largest and most active among all bodies in the field. cdma2000® technology was standardized in the Third-Generation Partnership Project 2 (3GPP2). Meanwhile, the Internet standards continued to scale successfully under the IETF. Web and structured information standards found homes in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). As every new technology and platform emerged, the industry players either created their own organizations or went to some existing private-sector body other than the ITU-T. Dozens of bodies emerged. Massive developer communities became clustered around computer operating systems that agreed on their own standards and rapidly incorporated them into products.

Over the past 22 years, the ITU-T became largely an organization without a purpose. Its membership dwindled. It produced fewer and fewer actual standards and only a small number are used by anyone. For several years over the past decade, the ITU-T attempted to ener-gize itself by emulating a project begun in ETSI known as Next-Generation Networks (NGN). The idea was to produce some kind of managed Internet Protocol network standards. Yet again, the work found little acceptance in the marketplace. By contrast, a single innovative entrepreneur such as the late Steve Jobs has profoundly evolved global telephony over the past three years and made it more ubiquitously available—than could be accomplished by the ITU-T in its lifetime!

The problem with an intergovernmental organization without a purpose is that it becomes a venue of mischief. The ITU-T asserts that it somehow helps “developing countries” and promotes itself as the “preeminent” standards body. In reality, even most developing countries have sufficient understanding of the reality to allocate their assets elsewhere, and know that ITU-T involvement is not a productive use of their scarce resources. With little industry involvement or developed country participation, the ITU-T has become a home for extreme agendas (See: Extreme agendas in the ITU)

The most extreme of these agendas is the attempt by some Nation States that began in 2002 to expand the ITU-T jurisdiction into a nebulous fairyland called “Information and Communication Technologies” or ICT. Its Website today asserts that “ITU-T Recommendations are defining elements in information and communication technologies (ICTs) infrastructure.” The ITU-T’s latest extreme gambits consist of attempts to assert jurisdiction over “Industrial Control Systems” and “Social Networks.” In reality, ITU T Recommendations (i.e., standards) today are virtually unused and the few remaining people who attend its meetings largely publish outdated academic material or copy specifications of other willing technical bodies.

In an attempt to get anyone to come to the meetings, the ITU-T recently opened its membership to universities and institutes virtually for free, and began paying people from developing countries to attend the meetings.

The ITU-T has its own version of the popular film Groundhog Day. Every four years, the alarm rings and representatives from scores of Nation States get together to envision what they can pursue for the next four years. It is called the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA). The Nation States awake in Dubai in November 2012 to detail the future of ITU-T work from 2013-2016. The agenda primarily includes dividing up a collective Nation State-view of ICT standards among 10 Study Groups—each with multiple Rapporteur Groups focusing on “questions”—the ITU-T word for a standards project. Two weeks are spent articulating ITU-T institutional turf and negotiating leadership positions amid gala evening receptions.

This year by some cosmological fate, there is a second concurrent Groundhog Day. Following the WTSA-12 meeting, Nation State representatives will also wake up in Dubai at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). Every 25 years, they re-negotiate a treaty that essentially attempts to set the global rules for an international telecommunication cartel. Extreme agendas are in hyper-mode here as some Nation States at-tempt to put new global regulatory controls in place for all the new “ICT” technologies they disdain—while at the same time earning considerable new revenue from their availability and partaking in the global information economy. Targets for control include mobile networks, cloud computing, apps, the Internet, and all the related services and content.

Complex extensive bindings exist between the ITU-T standards and the WCIT treaty provisions—essentially seeding the treaty provisions with ITU-T work items to promote an otherwise moribund organization. Like the ITU-T standards, the ITR provisions have long ceased to have relevance in the real world, and any adverse results can be ignored as relatively trivial. The only potential harm comes to those who regard them as obligations.

Had progressive and enlightened ITU Member States led an effort two decades ago to stop “kicking the can” and deal with the clear, overarching ITU institutional anomalies by privat-izing the ITU-T, a lot of wasted ITU-T and Nation State resources could have been avoided. Those resources could be applied to other parts of the ITU such as its radiocommunication sector (i.e., ITU-R) which remains a unique and important activity of the ITU. The resources could also be applied to participation in the numerous other global standards bodies where the real work occurs today. Or perhaps the resources could be applied to assisting Developing Countries to enhance and expand their telecommunication offerings.

Moving forward with privatization

Two steps need to be immediately taken for the upcoming WTSA-12. A resolution detailing a privatization plan must be introduced by a significant number of ITU Nation States. The plan would include an initial line item listing and disposition of existing ITU-T standards and work items, as well as any associated Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB) databases. A special Ad Hoc ITU-T Privatization Group should be created to work on refining this initial plan over the next two years leading up to the 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference which would need to take necessary actions in the ITU Constitution.

There are basically two disposition options—neither of which is mutually exclusive. One option entails the creation of a private standards organization—probably under Swiss law—that would assume ownership and responsibility for some set of viable ITU-T Recommenda-tions and databases. A second would entail the disbursement of viable work items to existing private global standards bodies willing to take on the items. So much of the existing ITU-T work is either illusory in nature or duplicative of that occurring in other bodies, much of it could be easily disposed following the second option.

Private organizations that fail in the marketplace quickly become bankrupt and are dissolved. Even if private bodies manage to continue for a while, their products are diminished to meet reduced demand. However, intergovernmental bodies that fail manage to often continue for-ever based on the largesse of public monies allocated to them. For these bodies, political rhetoric trumps market realities. What is needed today is less “kicking the ITU-T can” and more real leadership based on the realities today. Privatizing the ITU-T is a win-win for everyone.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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Interesting and possibly even a very good way forward Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Aug 18, 2012 10:15 AM

But it is going to remain a fond dream :)  Too many vested governmental interests, all of which will strenuously resist this attempt to undercut the one place where they have a solid power base.  GAC doesn’t seem to be all that viable an option to them, where they are one set of stakeholders among multiple others.

In many ways it is happening Anthony Rutkowski  –  Aug 18, 2012 11:45 AM

One of the purposes of the paper is to portray all the ways in which the ITU-T has essentially ceased to exist, as well as the historical fact that for the first third of its existence it was private. IETF or 3GPP meetings have ten times the participants from a far greater diversity of companies and countries, and do real work that everyone uses. If it were not for ITU-T's Geneva location, it's doubtful that it would exist today. The remaining challenge is the "just say no" dissolution step for the few remaining players. The WTSA-12/WCIT-12 events at the end of the year should help that along. What is needed is an effective mechanism to help the remaining transition, and toward that end, an Institute for Privatizing ITU-T is being formed. Stay tuned to WWW.PrivatizingITU-T.ORG

ITU/IEC André Rebentisch  –  Dec 4, 2012 6:39 PM

Why not migrate all ITU-T standardisation work to ISO/IEC? ISO/IEC is the appropriate UN body for standardisation. Or merge these organisations to III = ISO/IEC/ITU-T. When you consider winding up an obsolete organisation you need to provide an acceptable migration path.

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