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The Continuing ITU Meltdown

It is rather like watching the episodes in the new season of a soap opera. When we last left the ITU at its WCIT treaty conference in Dubai in December, fifty-five nations got up and left, refusing to sign a profoundly broken scheme to regulate anything and everything related to telecommunications, information systems, and the Internet. Eighty-nine nations signed—notably Russia, China, Korea, and most of the Middle East and African countries. This G55 versus G89 split fundamentally fractured the legal basis of the ITU and the role of its standards making body. The Russian educated Secretary-General from Mali, Hamadoun Touré, who had attempted to orchestrate this regulated WCIT outcome working with the G89 for the previous ten years, went into spin mode, calling it “the beginning of something new” in his closing address.

Now two months later, the ITU-T 2013-2016 meeting period is underway. A number of the most significant Study Groups have begun to hold their first meetings, including ITU-T’s “internet/cloud” Study Group 13 that has been renamed Future Networks. We now have an emerging picture of this “beginning of something new.”

Metrics of the New ITU-T

Like all standards bodies, the ITU-T work is defined by its input contributions. One observation about the new ITU-T is impressive and crystal clear. Almost everyone has fled the organization except for a few established participants from China and Korea and their partners. Pretty much all of industry together with the G55 nations have left. A few show up in “wack-a-mole” mode. This trend had been ongoing for several years. However, the WCIT seems to have significantly accelerated the process. The 251 input contributions to the ITU-T SG 13 meeting beginning next week on 18 February are from the following sources.

SG13 Document ContributorDocs.Percent.Cumulative
Korea ETRI4418%18%
China MIIT4116%34%
China Unicom3815%49%
China Telecom2510%59%
Microsoft Corporation125%64%
ZTE Corporation125%69%
China Mobile83%72%
Telekomunikacija Polska83%75%
Huawei Technologies62%77%
Alcatel-Lucent Deutschland52%82%
NEC Corporation52%86%
Japan NICT42%87%
KT Corporation31%90%
Russian Federation31%91%
France Télécom Orange31%92%
Cisco Systems21%93%
Fujitsu Limited21%94%
Hitachi, Ltd21%94%
KDDI Corporation21%95%
Softbank Telecom Corp21%96%
Applied Communications Sciences21%97%
Algeria ARPT10%97%
Institut Mines-Télécom10%98%
Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority10%98%
Slovenia Ministry of ESCS10%99%
United States10%99%
University of Zurich10%100%

The metrics here are dramatically different than in the past, and mark an end to what was the ITU-T’s premier study group. This trend is also occurring across all the ITU-T Study Groups where China, Korea, and partners accounted for eighty percent of the 723 documents input into five ITU-T Study Groups meeting over the past eight weeks.

Focus of the New ITU-T

As part of the portrayal of the “something new,” a review of the 215 input documents Study Group 13 also reveals the prevailing focus of the work. The contributions predominantly deal with the mechanics of pervasive surveillance and content control. This includes DPI mechanisms and use cases, filtering of content to local networks, control of individual user mobile phones, controls on peer-to-peer services, extensive regulatory controls on cloud computing facilities, and Big Data Analytics for extracting every nuance about individual users from real-time communications and stored data.

For the upcoming SG13 meeting, there are no less than six contributions on Big Data Analytics—four from China Unicom and one each from ETRI and ZTE. The tone of the documents mirrors the anti-Internet perspectives heard at the WCIT. China Unicom rather explicitly begins its contribution with an attack on Google and other alleged “over-the-top” providers never before witnessed in the ITU-T.

With the rapid development of mobile internet, as the over-the-top (OTT) players, such as Google and Tencent, eating into their revenues, telecom operators are under immense pressure as a result of the changing competitive landscape. Simultaneously, the accompanying explosion of big data gives telecom operators another opportunity to stay competitively with internet companies.


Following with cloud computing, internet of things, big data was considered as another technical revolution, which deeply impacts corporation decision-making, business intelligence and even the way of life of the individuals. As the heart of data exchange system, telecom operator exhibits the instinct advantage of possessing personal data, relying on which the data mining presents numerous potential commercial value. Therefore, we propose to set up a new work item that focuses on the Big Data applictions in telecom operators and this document should be part of the initial draft of the new work item. (See ITU-T SG13 Doc. C-108)

Thus, to compete with OTT services, telecom operators are building “smart pipes” to replace the “dumb pipes”. Smart pipes rely on the DPI (deep packet inspection) to provide QoS and security assurance of communications. With the vast traffic volume, only the Big Data technology can provide the real-time processing ability. Thus, Big Data technologies and application should provide unique backbone support for smart pipe of telecom operators. Therefore, the specific requirements for the Big Data to provide the backbone support for smart pipe should be properly described. (See ITU-T SG13 Doc. C-111)

These contributions are largely devoid of technical content and copy material from multiple external sources of information. As a result, if these egregious ITU-T Recommendations are approved by circumventing traditional approval processes—which was done for the DPI specification in Dubai—most are not likely to be used for actual product or service offerings. On the other hand, they are ominous as the kind of regulatory technical requirements in some countries envisioned under the International Telecommunication Regulations signed by the G89.

What’s Next in the ITU

Hamadoun Touré was right on one count—the ITU definitely has the beginning of something new. It is the beginning of the end of the ITU telecommunication sector. The ITU-T has essentially become a standards institute for China and Korea that provides the means for implementing the WCIT Group of 89 regulatory agenda.

The next major ITU event is its Plenipotentiary Conference in October 2014 in Busan, Korea. The future of the organization will definitely be at stake in the form of two sets of decisions: potentially instantiating the Group of 89 view of the world in the ITU Constitution and Final Acts of the Conference, and electing the ITU leadership for the following four years. There are two roads along which the 193 Member States could proceed.

The worst case scenario is the emergence of a very different ITU—as most of the G89 agenda consists of “red lines” that the G55 nations will not countenance. The most dire result might consist of:

  • a G89 ITU Constitution
  • G89 International Telecommunication Regulations
  • G193 Radio Regulations
  • a G89 Secretary-General and other elected officials

In this scenario, most of the G55 would significantly cut back their financial contributions to the ITU and eschew participation except in the Radio Sector. The cutting back frankly already began several years ago with some major countries reducing their contributions and a great many private companies dropping membership. This would simply accelerate. It would also create a budget crunch in the organization that unlike the U.N. relies on voluntary donations. The old ITU Telecom trade shows that one time provided extra fallback revenue for the organization have long gone into the red as industry shifted over to GSMA and Internet related venues. The ITU will increasingly be looking for money to service an ITU-T flooded with thousands of input documents from a handful of participants and largely ignored by most of the world. The development sector will be starved of resources.

A more optimistic scenario is that ITU Member States will recognize that the ITU’s traditional strengths are its accommodation of diversity among its members and reverse the unfortunate directions pursued over the past decade—adopting a minimalist organization construct and electing a Secretary-General that is an administrator rather than a zealot for a particular set of views. It would return the organization to its founding precepts in 1868 that its secretariats would be charged with only “purely administrative work” and operating the organization’s facilities. This more optimistic scenario would also include potentially spinning out the ITU-T as an independent private-sector standards body similar to what was successfully accomplished with the 3GPP two decades ago for mobile communications. This scenario could also be accompanied together with the establishment of a regional Asia-Pacific “ETSI-like” organization. Both steps would seem to better serve the interests of China and Korea than dominating and perpetuating an uneeded and largely abandoned ITU-T in the ITU.

Hopefully, the more optimistic scenario prevails in 2014.

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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