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Minding the Gap at the ITU-T

In 1992, Theo Irmer who had served as the organization’s director for the previous eight years during its glory days, wrote that if there was any hope of saving what was left of the body, it must be privatised (see:CCITT Chief Says His Organisation Should Be Privatised”.

That never occurred. Everyone pretty much left and migrated to dozens of other venues where all the world’s information and communication technology standards have long been created and evolved. Essentially every major nation moved to competitive, private, marketplace-driven provisioning of communication products and services. The ITU-T twenty-one years later is pretty much a shell of an organization where a few remaining people occasionally meander to its meetings in Geneva to fulfill political mandates set forth in resolutions adopted at UN like conclaves. Nearly 30 major nations have significantly cut back what they contribute into ITU coffers.

One of the strangest of these mandates is something known as “Bridging the standardization gap between developing and developed countries” or BSG. The concept was put forth at one of the ITU-T’s quadrennial world telecommunication standardization conferences in 2004 and known as Resolution 44. It subsequently became entwined with yet another resolution at the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference dealing with the same subject.

At the core of these resolutions is a palpable need—namely that some developing countries have minimal familiarity with today’s complex global communications standards ecosystem, and need assistance in getting access to current information and participating where necessary in the diverse ongoing activities. In reality, there is no developing-developed country gap at all, but simply a challenge that almost everyone has today—coping with today’s highly dynamic global standards ecosystem.

Sadly, there are no Theo Irmers around today, and instead these resolutions have been turned into an ongoing marketing exercise at the ITU-T for preposterous notions that will potentially harm the very nations the resolutions were intended to help. The assertions below are being vetted at an ITU-T special session that will be held in Geneva at the end of this month.

1. “ITU-T standards (known as Recommendations) are the bedrock underpinning [of] the modern information and communication networks that serve as the lifeblood of virtually every economic activity;”

2. “ITU-T standards facilitate access to global markets and allow for economies of scale in production and distribution, safe in the knowledge that ITU-T-compliant systems will work anywhere in the world: for purchasers from telcos to multinational companies to ordinary consumers, they provide assurances that equipment will integrate effortlessly with other installed systems;”

3. That every nation to bring about growth and innovation must establish national standards based on ITU-T Recommendations, introduce them through regulatory mandates, and establish conformance assessment capabilities.

The real gap here is the rather apparent gulf between utterly surreal views such as these being put forth as fact within ITU-T venues, and the real world. And, it does need minding.

The global ICT standards work today occurs in vast constellations of standards bodies, such as 3GPP/GSMA for mobile, IETF, W3C, and OASIS for Internet/web implementations. Especially important are the huge developer standards forums for major platforms that exist today. One has only to glance at the smart phones, tablets, and laptops that adorn the personal communications attire of most people today, and that drive the global economy, and realize that essentially none of it derives from ITU-T Recommendations.

Nearly all developed countries moved away from national regulatory regimes, standards and conformance assessment for the telecommunication industry decades ago. The so-called ICT industry, products, and services that exist today never had them imposed and could not have come about under such a regulatory paradigm.

What should be done

The first and most difficult step is for those who participate in the ITU-T activities—like Irmer did more than two decades ago—to have the courage to be honest about today’s global standards ecosystem and implementation paradigms. That honesty would result in completely restructuring what occurs pursuant to the BSG Resolution, and include:

1) Use existing ITU resources and donations to make developing countries aware of how and where ICT standards are developed today—through comprehensive and current websites and regional seminars;

2) Stop wasting scarce developing country resources by bringing people to ITU-T meetings or participating in leadership positions;

3) Use available monies and resources to facilitate participation in the actual industry venues where ICT standards are developed—in many cases leveraging additional resources that already exist in those venues for developing country participation;

4) Stop encouraging fundamentally absurd constructs revolving around assertions that developing country success is predicated on implementing regulatory regimes based on ITU-T standards and conformance assessment for all ICT products and services.

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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