Whether we are buying a book, voting, paying a bill or coordinating a disaster relief effort, the importance of the Internet is well understood. But for most of the world’s two billion Internet users, the mechanics behind its functioning are not.
It is quite remarkable that the technology behind the Internet turned out to be so scalable.
However, this may have been the only coincidence or accident in the development of this now ubiquitous global network-of-networks. Over the years thousands of engineers and other specialists around the world have come together in various different forums and standards development organizations to create the protocols and standards that enable the Internet to function.
In addition, given that by 2016, there will be 81 Exabytes of traffic on the Internet monthly, it’s clear that this rate of innovation will not slow.
If there had not been a set of globally agreed standards that gave, for example, a common means to connect, a common language for the exchange of data as well as a form for displaying that data, then the exponential growth in the use of the Internet would probably never have happened.
There are many organizations involved and a strong degree of cooperation binds them all.
Take for example your mobile phone. ITU-T codecs provide voice and video; ITU-R defines the radio spectrum in which it operates; IEEE provides WiFi standards; IETF, TCP/IP and HTTP; W3C, HTML and XML; just to name a few.
Mobile backhaul is primarily facilitated by optical transport networks conforming to ITU standards and ITU’s IMT Advanced specifications will make your phone at least 100 times faster than today’s 3G smart phones. Building blocks for an Internet Age is an info-graphic that charts some of ITU’s work, but it also acknowledges that ITU is an important part of a big jigsaw puzzle with many different players slotting in to provide coherence and continuity to one of the greatest engineering feats ever achieved.
ITU has led many initiatives to avoid duplication of work between standards organizations.
It convenes an annual meeting of CTOs to address this specific issue and a quadrennial Global Standards Symposium that brings together all key standards organizations to focus on better coordination. In fact, these are just two of the more high-level initiatives to ensure that the standards forming the backbone of all ICTs are developed to match the speed and efficiency of the industry they serve.
As economist, Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1937) noted: “Technology is not kind. It does not wait. It does not say please. It slams into existing systems. Often destroying them, while creating new ones”.
Many estimates suggest that 95 per cent of international traffic runs over fibre optic cable. This is easy to forget when wireless technology seems so ubiquitous. However, when just one undersea cable is compromised, vast areas can see significant degradation of service.
Defining the standards that apply to the physical infrastructure over which all data runs, is a key area of work for ITU. The vast majority of global communications systems interoperate because of optical transport standards agreed between ITU members from the private and public sectors.
For example, the key standard for synchronous data transmission over fibre-optic networks, synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) was developed within ITU’s standardization sector – ITU-T.
Wave division multiplexing (WDM) is another technology in which ITU-T standards have played a very important role. WDM increases the data-carrying capacity of an optical fibre by allowing simultaneous operation at more than one wavelength. Particular emphasis is given to global standards providing for a high-capacity (terabit) optical transport network (OTN) infrastructure.
These types of technologies, constantly pushing the boundaries of installed undersea cables and other fibre optics, are crucial in order to maximize return on investment for owners and are vital in terms of serving the increased demand for broadband services around the world.
The same goes for standards that have consistently pushed the bandwidth capacity of the copper cabling that many Internet Service Providers rely on, but which was originally installed for voice-only telephony.
Indeed, hardly anyone would be able to use this powerful resource without ITU-brokered and approved global standards for the critical access technologies of the Internet – at first with modems (V series standards) and now via broadband (G.99x series (DSL) and J series (DOCSIS)). The latest standard focusing on copper will push aggregate bit rates to an extraordinary 1 Gb/s. It’s safe to say that a very large proportion of the 600 million people that have a fixed broadband connection are connected via ITU standards.
But it’s not just in the physical domain that ITU’s standards have helped the growth of the Internet.
Video over the Internet is to a large extent facilitated by ITU-T’s Emmy award winning H.264, while the growth of e-commerce was spurred by an ITU standard for public key encryption (ITU-T X.509), and VoIP by a standard for call signaling and control (ITU-T H.323). A new video codec, ITU-T H.265, looks set to replace H.264 implementations and offers an incredible 50 per cent greater efficiency. In addition, ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) works on the frequencies required for Wi-Fi and mobile broadband.
All layers of the Internet are subject to rapid technological change, characterized by application innovation, increased subscriber rates and a new range of service providers. Key stakeholders from right across the Internet ecosystem, including public and private sector organizations, technical bodies, and civil society will continue to work collaboratively with global standards-makers like ITU to ensure coordinated and efficient development of the standards that underpin our interconnected world.
By: Toby Johnson
Toby Johnson is a communications professional with 15+ years experience in the tech space. In the UK he edited various trade magazines, also taking freelance commissions for more mainstream media. At ITU he has led a new era of outreach championing new and social media and pro-active relations. Currently, Toby heads up the media outreach, membership, academia and workshop organization for the standardization sector of ITU.