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The East Asia Telecommunication Union

That’s what Europeans are now calling the venerable old International Telecommunication Union—EATU for short. In fact, based on current metrics, this transformation is exactly what has occurred.

The shift began occurring almost a decade ago, and has dramatically accelerated in recent years. At the ITU-T’s key Study Group 17 meeting on security now underway, fully 90% of the input contributions and more than half of those participating are from only three countries—China, Japan, and Korea. Indeed, there has long been a semi-formal organization known as CJK that has been manifested here. A de facto process has emerged where CJK nations submit input documents to CJK led rapporteur groups that are approved as work and assigned to CJK participants. Japan to give it credit, does not pursue much work and tries to be helpful in moderating the excesses of the other two.

The attendance by everyone at ITU-T meetings has fallen dramatically. Among those still attending, the skewing is dramatic. At the current SG17 meeting, there are 46 from CJK. Twenty-three are from 16 African countries facilitated by ITU sponsorships; 17 from 7 North American and European countries; 5 from Russia; 3 from 2 Latin American countries; one from the Middle East. Almost everyone except CJK, basically watches the CJK participants who discuss their own largely academic material among a handful of people sitting in darkened, almost empty rooms in Geneva. Even though the ITU has excellent remote participant capabilities, they remain essentially unused. The metrics are typical of almost all in the ITU-T today.

The ITU-T clearly has ceased to be an international organization in the global sense. What is not clear is that anyone, including the incoming leadership who are likely also from CJK, are willing to recognize this fundamental shift, much less do anything about it—assuming there is anything that can be done. As a participant in almost every ITU body and activity externally over the past 40 years and onetime senior staff member, as well as co-author of its principal historical treatise in the 1980s, The ITU in a Changing World, what has unfolded is remarkable to say the least.

The unopposed incoming new Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, who has been part of the ITU’s history over the past 30 years, often opined that the ITU-T whose secretariat he once led, saved CJK the effort of creating an European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Houlin is knowledgeable and creative. However, now that he is taking the helm of the larger organization, he is faced with the reality that the ITU-T today is nothing more than the East Asia Telecommunication Union where CJK participants get to talk to themselves. CJK may have been successful in taking over the body, but the value has disappeared; and the rest of the world isn’t likely to be interested in dubious standards developed largely by China and Korea. (Houlin is also faced with the devastation to the organization caused by his predecessor’s foolish WCIT gambit to produce new ITRs patently unneeded, but that’s another matter.)

Over the past fifteen years, the ITU leadership have tried lots of schemes to fix the ITU-T decline: cheap memberships; declaring itself “pre-eminent,” attracting academics; subsidies for developing countries, buzz-word promotion of new work such as NGN, Future Networks, cybersecurity, cloud, SmartGrids, Smart Cities, Internet of Things, etc. The staff in Geneva scour the trade press for the latest cool thing and try to promote it as potential ITU-T work through self-generated notes and resolutions. The efforts are often comedic as occasional workshops on the latest cool thing are hosted by the ITU, only to have almost no one participate or attend, as anyone knowledgeable knows the forums where the work actually occurs. Nothing has been successful. The Members keep cutting back their financial contributions and opt out of almost everything ITU-T related. Almost all the resulting material is irrelevant at best, pathetic at worst.

It is worth noting that the ITU isn’t the only legacy telecom body facing these challenges. Almost all of the old “SDOs” in this field are facing significant challenges, and pursuing anything relevant in an intergovernmental one like the ITU is a non-starter. The global revolution “virtualization of everything related to electronic communication networks and services” genie is not going to fit in a legacy standards organization bottle.

So what can the ITU Members and incoming leadership do? It turns out that Houlin’s favorite model—ETSI—has faced a similar problem and been remarkably successful by getting the organization out of most legacy telecom standards activity. It has made effective use of its assets by becoming an incubator host for self-organizing industry groups. With low overhead, cost, and bureaucracy, any industry group can create an “Industry Specification Group” at ETSI. They get access to the essential facilities of what is probably the best international standards making secretariat in the world.

The ISG concept builds on what is the largest, most active, and most wildly successful standards body in the field, the 3GPP. The entire global mobile infrastructure and devices that most of the world uses are built and evolved to meet 3GPP standards releases developed by its 42 working groups. That work is overseen and facilitated by the principal global venue for all mobile operators and vendors, the GSMA.

Not all the ISGs have been successful, but ETSI hit a home run last year when it hosted the NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) Group and attracted more participants, contributions, activity and creative ideas than the network standards world has ever seen. Essentially everyone, including the best CJK players, have shifted there for anything related to NFV and SDNs, and it in turn is collaborating closely with all the relevant other bodies.

It is not clear whether ITU and its leadership also has the fortitude and political willingness to get out of the standards making business and transform itself into a global incubator secretariat for new industry groups and regional organizations. Former ITU-T leader Theo Irmer basically tried unsuccessfully to accomplish it years ago. However, at this point, it is the only viable option remaining; and it could actually provide significant benefits 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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