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Saving the ITU-T in Three Steps

In yet another committee meeting among the many over the past thirty years, the ITU-T is holding a Review Committee session in Geneva in two weeks in an attempt to save the organization. There aren’t many people left these days interested in these noble efforts—largely from the only two remaining entities who participate significantly—Korea’s government ETRI institute, and entities clustered around China’s MIIT ministry. As someone who has participated in and written about the organization over the past forty years in many different capacities, I have some suggestions—in the spirit of recognizing that there is still something worth saving.

1 – Understand who you are

The ITU-T is what remains from a world that disappeared a two decades ago when legacy telecommunications was provided in every nation either by a government agency or by a regulated monopoly. During that era, the world needed an intergovernmental body for all the national providers and supporting vendors to work together. However, as those legacy services and government roles disappeared, the need for an intergovernmental technical body was effectively eliminated.

These changes and the effects on the ITU-T were witnessed by numerous people participating in the organization, including its elected leadership. Year after year, the organization was urged to privatize and shift to a non-governmental international standards body model like all the many others worldwide. A technical standards body whose agendas and processes are set by 193 national representatives under UN resolutions and processes meeting every four years, inherently cannot function meaningfully in this sector today.

It is incredulous to see yet today, submissions into the meeting asserting the need for seven political “principles,” beginning with “Principle 1: Leading role of ITU-T in the global ICT standardization.” It makes one want to ask “what world do you live in?” On the one hand, the submission laments that the ITU-T “is not so responsive to ICT market needs,” while proposing to proceed on a set of principles that are the antithesis of a global market economy.

At the zenith of its role, the ITU-T dealt with what are now legacy telecommunication products. The ITU-T never played a relevant ICT role—which is not even in its remit. ICT market needs by their very nature are met by countless global companies, organizations, and market activities. This occurs in a highly distributed, constantly changing ICT ecosystem. They are not met by a handful of government representatives attempting to plan the future in Geneva. That will never happen.

So, coming to an understanding of who you are as an organization in today’s ecosystem, is an essential first step. That should lead in turn to the inescapable realization that privatizing the organization is essential.

2 – Understand your vestigial value proposition

If one undertakes an analysis of the metrics of the ITU-T 862 work items in 136 working level rapporteur groups, it is vividly apparent where the value propositions exist. Input contributions and participation are the basics—together with the associated trends over the past several years. What they reveal are a few groups where at least some parties are willing to participate to do work.

Not surprisingly, nearly all of these viable groups are dealing with enhancements to a few legacy telecommunication products. In a privatized ITU-T, the top dozen or so viable rapporteur groups would survive. The rest cannot be justified by the few willing to participate in what are largely exercises of meetings to do nothing or publish incomprehensible and outdated academic papers.

It is also apparent if one analyzes the participation, that the preponderance of the attendance and work across most of the ITU-T today—especially the marginal groups - is undertaken by a cluster of entities around the China MIIT and Korea’s ETRI. In other words, the ITU-T has been transformed from being global, to one largely serving some perceived needs of two agencies. However, it is other ITU Member nations and the small number of private sector members who are largely subsidizing the activities of these two countries. Already, thirty Member ITU countries have significantly trimmed their contributions to the organization. Many companies have simply left and stopped contributing anything.

Understanding the vestigial value proposition needs to be based on a candid appraisal of the basic factual metrics of the organization. The need for major transformation and culling is obvious. If any institutes want to publish their papers, they should do so independent of the ITU-T and pay the associated costs.

3 – Focus on your own work

Lastly, the useful remaining ITU-T groups need to progress their own work that has demonstrable value. They don’t need to be coordinating and collaborating with every other body they can think of. It is not uncommon in some ITU-T groups that have no input contributions to simply meet and generate copious liaison statements to provide a basis for meeting and continued existence.

Most other bodies in this sector do not care about the ITU-T other than: 1) when some ITU-T activity takes their specifications and IPR and republishes it or modifies it as a derivative work, and 2) when the ITU-T duplicates the work of other bodies and creates needless marketplace confusion.

Almost everything in the ICT sector today, constantly occurs across innumerable forums of all kinds. Most viable groups handle this through highly active email lists where the parties distribute information about what is occurring where. Knowledgeable participants and leadership keep their colleagues informed. Legacy practices from a bygone era such as “liaison statements,” and coordinating groups, are more than a waste of time—they waste needed resources both in the ITU-T and in other organizations which usually just ignore or note them.

The ITU-T support services are actually relatively good today. However, there are far too many email lists which are almost entirely unused—creating confusion and unneeded burdens. There are also too many contributions to “game the system” by inputting large numbers of trivial one-page submissions for the same work item. There are also no management tools to provide transparency on the progress (or lack of it) for work items and the elimination of moribund work. In general, however, the underlying support services are better than average among standards bodies, and the work can be done quickly.

What the ITU-T needs to do, however, is stop holding out that it is the center of the ICT universe and capable of doing anything and everything. Much of this fantasy is driven by some in the ITU’s permanent secretariats which have moved away from support services and undertaken the roles of ITU members in promoting hypothetical work and a reason to exist. Conversely, the ITU-T participants need to decide what work is actually worth undertaking because it has immediate, unique value in the marketplace. All too often—especially in areas like mobile communications, cloud computing, and Internet services, a few parties in the ITU-T push for work that has long been massively underway in other organizations by large numbers of industry participants.

Reviewing the ITU-T group metrics and identifying the few specific work areas where viable work is occurring and focusing on that work while mindful of the larger ecosystem of activity, can prove viable. All new work should be subject to rigorous demonstrations that 1) it is not already being done elsewhere, 2) that the capacity exists to do the work, and 3) that it has actual value rather than just being some agency or institute’s favorite new interest.

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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