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A Hospice Strategy for the ITU-T

Anthony Rutkowski

After the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) debacle last year, the exit of almost everyone out of the ITU-T was accelerated. The ongoing meeting of its former "crown jewel" Study Group 13 that claims to be the global coordinator of all things Internet, Cloud Computing, SDN, IoT, and Future Networks, attracted only 80 people — mostly from three countries plus the host. Only a single person from the Americas attended. The 222 input documents were largely from the same three countries and partners. The numbers were juiced up by submitters creating one document per sub, sub, sub section in the case of a single DPI Framework document. The reality today is that those metrics and proportions — although they may have been exacerbated by the venue — are reflected across almost all the ITU-T work.

Twenty years ago, the ITU-T Director at the time — who was also its doyen of the ITU-T's venture into data networks (ironically heading what is now SG13) — evangelized removing the ITU-T from under the ITU, arguing that it would otherwise be dead. Twenty years later, everyone is witnessing what can only be characterized as its death throes.

During the intervening years, all kinds of institutional CardioPulmonary Resuscitation has been applied. The ITU-T death spiral began when the mobile community left with the principal global tradeshow, and the Internet folks never came. Then most national administrations left the telecom provisioning business. Over the past few years, smartphones, tablets, apps, and the mobile world went viral and blew right by the ITU-T.

One ITU-T director after another had their favorite CPR ideas: Trying to take on ETSI's Next Generation Network efforts. Creating cheap associate memberships. Creating even cheaper university memberships. Giving the standards away for free (about 20 years too late). Declaring the ITU-T to be the "preeminent body" for all things Internet, cybersecurity, Cloud Computing, Internet of Things, "ICT," industrial control systems, and anything else they could think of. And then finally, creating ludicrous compliance and testing regimes for ITU-T standards as barriers to entry in the global marketplace — as if someone could actually build anything with those standards.

Twenty-nine nations decided they had enough and have significantly cut back what they give to the ITU. Most Western Administrations and their industries don't attend the ITU-T meetings anymore. Yet, the ITU-T remains alive because of two factors. Enough Nation States get together at intergovernmental conferences to provide the equivalent of institutional steroids — resolutions that demand countless vague work from the organization. It's called the resolution game. The second is that with essentially no one going to meetings anymore, it is an invitation to a few nations to drive their agendas — many regulatory in nature — into an intergovernmental body by endless flurries of work items and documents that apparently meet some strategic interest, or maybe just to keep jobs and gratuitous group titles for those attending.

Hence the need for a "hospice strategy." The issue isn't whether the ITU-T is going to die, but when. And given its continuing life support, the question begins to devolve to providing some kind of oversight for those 829 work items in 143 ITU-T rapporteur groups and the few remaining people who wander into those dark little ITU-T meeting rooms. Almost all of the work items are rubbish and duplicate the real work occurring in industry forums elsewhere. Many die for lack of inputs. The poorest developing countries are misled into believing the work is worth something to them.

Some of the ITU-T Recommendations are possibly harmful to the global marketplace, infrastructures, and service offerings. It's this last "gotcha" that creates the conundrum. No nation within its government today has the resources to monitor all those work items as they are nudged from meeting to meeting over what is generally many years before they are disposed of in some fashion.

Ironically, the pathway for a hospice strategy was suggested by the outgoing ITU Secretary-General at a recent symposium in the U.S. The idea is that the ITU-T as an intergovernmental body in the U.N. system, pursuant to the laws of most countries, is open to participation by the public. All documents are inherently public and available for scrutiny. Transparency is essential. Transparency also helps ITU Member Administrations deal with the challenge of monitoring 829 work items in 143 rapporteur groups meeting twice a yearwith constant attempts to add more. The dispersed size of these items represents a large "attack surface" for those pursuing mischievous or foolish behavior.

Fortunately, this course of action is actually rather cheap and easy. National bodies and organizations with ITU memberships can help facilitate the availability of all ITU-T documents. Ideally, this would include participation on ITU-T eMail lists — that are now almost universally moribund. This larger cadre of ITU-T Watch volunteers can then help their Administrations in identifying and disposing of the constant stream of egregious documents and work items.

Ultimately, the only real residual value for anyone may lie in the ITU supporting a website with pointers to where all the real work is occurring — a kind of virtual forum. In the meantime the ITU-T lives to die another day at some future Plenipotentiary Conference in the care of hospice volunteers.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC
Related topics: Internet Governance
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