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Celebrating the ITU's Anniversary with "Abandonment"

Anthony Rutkowski

The ITU is attempting to puff up some vestige of a value proposition this year by celebrating what its PR material purports to be the 150th anniversary. In reality, it has actually only existed as the ITU since 1934, and the pieces prior to that point stretch back 165 years to 1850. It was at that point that nations operating electric telegraph systems met at the first international meeting in Dresden to cobble together all the basic intergovernmental provisions that still exist today, and dubbed the organization the "Union." But, no matter, the organization has never been really interested in its history, and it patently doesn't really matter anymore.

This month the ITU's three principal telecom standards study groups met in Geneva — dedicated to security (SG17), new networks/cloud (SG13), and signalling/protocols (SG11). Except for inordinately large delegations from China at all three meetings, almost no one else showed up except for a few national representatives doing "wack-a-mole" duty to tamp down mischievous work items slipped-in and which attempt to duplicate the real industry activities done in other organizations. Indeed, there were so few participants, that the new networks/cloud group — SG13 — took the extraordinary step of convening an adhoc group on "abandonment" of what was one of its most active subgroups dealing with security and identity management.

Patently, the constituents here have "voted with their feet" and sent the message that in a world of apps on smartphones and virtualized services on cloud data centers served by huge, active, industry bodies and collaborative activities, an intergovernmental technical standards body run under a U.N. model has no real relevance. The ITU-T meeting metrics answered a long standing question about how such bodies fade from the scene — they get abandoned. China may want to send a bunch of volunteers there to keep it alive, but that doesn't make it a viable international organization; and even China will eventually realize its interests are not being served by sending delegates to Geneva to talk among themselves.

In the face of this stark reality, a few lonely ITU staffers put on a brave face and toil to advance anniversary activities "highlighting ICTs as 'Drivers of Innovation'" — complete with exhibitions, commemorative stamps, awards, and speeches. One has to feel sorry for the new Secretary-General who in his website message, asserts that the "ITU has reaffirmed its reputation worldwide as one of the most resilient and relevant organizations." The newly elected leader of the ITU — who has spent his career ably serving the organization — clearly faces a challenging task going forward that is not well served by ignoring the reality of the organization today, or pursuing expansion of the remit of the organization to include a vast unbounded world of "ICTs," or by having what remains of the ITU-T packed by representatives from a single country.

What is needed is an honest appraisal of the ITU as it exists today together with an understanding of what vestigial role remains for a 165 year old intergovernmental body that began by cobbling together electric telegraph networks. What should occur next is clearly difficult. The ITU needs to be a much smaller and more focussed organization — likely where it still has some remaining, unique value propositions such as the radio spectrum management sector, and a global reach to point all nations to the venues where real work occurs today rather than pretending it is the self-anointed driver of innovation in the mobile or ICT worlds. Looking in the mirror and facing reality would be the most valuable ITU anniversary celebration — whether 150 or 165 years.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

Related topics: Internet Governance, Telecom


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A different view Dave Burstein  –  May 14, 2015 1:34 AM PDT

Actually, many parts of the ITU are thriving. The new DSL standard, G.fast, was almost completely developed by the ITU working group. It brings DSL speeds to hundreds of megabits and sometimes a gigabit.

Tony is right many of the Western companies are less active. In one way, that's not a surprise. We've seen the end of formerly great contributors to communications like Siemens and Nortel as well as the decimation of Bell Labs. Everyone else has cut back.

Much of the slack in research - and ITU standards - is being taken up by Asian companies like Samsung, NTT and Huawei. The ITU, unlike most other groups, has done a great job of involving the new players. In other parts of the ITU, Africans and Latin Americans are deeply involved, a good thing.

The way to read Tony's data is a failure of U.S. and most European companies to keep up with the changing world. Most innovative communications work, other than software, is no longer developed in the West. We should take Tony's data as a warning we need more research, better supported, in the U.S. and Europe.

It's time for the U.S. to stop lamenting our lost glory and start working towards great results.

The view from stovepipes tends to be different Anthony Rutkowski  –  May 14, 2015 5:25 AM PDT

There are several hundred ITU Groups within its organization structure.  Those groups dealing with radiocommunication and a few dealing with extending legacy technologies are active and useful for the participants.  Companies in those markets, including those in the West, participate in those groups.  The other 95% consist of a handful of people meeting in darkened rooms, browsing Websites, and doing little but justifying trips to Geneva and a title.  It seems a stretch to characterize these few venues as "thriving," or use a handful of activities among the hundreds to characterize the viability of the entire organization.

The reality is that the ITU is an intergovernmental entity run by U.N. rules.  In a past era where governments provided monopoly telecommunication services and collaborated among themselves globally, ITU thrived.  Today such bodies have no real value proposition in the information communications sector, and industry has simply shifted elsewhere for its standards making activities except for the few legacy specifications like DSL that emerged from ITU-T ISDN work several decades ago. 

The "glory" still exists - it has just moved to other forums which are global, huge, and highly active.  No one is lamenting anything - only tired of the ludicrous hype and treaty machinations that attempt to infer that the ITU is the global driver of the world's ICT innovation, duplicating work done by industry elsewhere, shackling the industry with prescriptive "Recommendations," and paying the bills to keep the lights on, the bathrooms cleaned, and a bloated staff in Geneva to keep the PR machine running.  Times change.

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