How ICT standards can align with innovation: Chaesub Lee

chaesubAhead of the upcoming World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (#ITUWTSA)in Hammamet, Tunisia, 25 October to 3 November (an ITU governing conference held every four years for ITU members to refine the strategic direction and structure of ITU’s standardization arm) DisruptiveViews (DV) was pleased to interview Chaesub Lee (CL), Director of the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau. Below is the interview, first published in Disruptive Views.

DV: Mr Lee, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us about the role of standardization in a world that is moving at breakneck speed. 

First, standards setting was seen as a cumbersome process in the time of, say, GSM, where speed was not as important as it is today. Has the standards making process changed to be more aligned to faster innovation, and how?

CL: The ICT standardization ecosystem is made up of numerous standards-setting entities, some very focused and others very broad in scope. For example, some bodies focus on specific elements of technology while others also look at their operation and provisioning.

Small industry forums might be capable of setting standards faster, but the drawback of that approach is that the standards agreed often speak to the priorities of only a small set of companies and might not be sufficient to ensure interoperability, compatibility and safety when part of a larger system. 

A formal standards-developing organization such as ITU operates using principles that ensure that all voices are heard, that standards efforts do not favour particular commercial interests, and that resulting standards have the consensus-derived support of the diverse set of stakeholders that comprise the globally representative ITU membership.

RELATED: Chaesub Lee explains why ITU’s WTSA-16 is so important (VIDEO)

Standards developed by single companies or small groups of companies may however achieve great success, adopted by a broad range of industry players. In such cases, it is not uncommon for an SDO [Standards Development Organization] to remodel such standards as international standards to ensure that they are globally applicable.

DV:  There is a lot of hype about how soon innovations such as the autonomous car will be allowed to launch. From a standards setting point of view, how much will standards setting slow down such initiatives?

CL: Standardization will not slow down such initiatives, but the lack of widely accepted standards could lead to the persistence of unresolved issues related to road safety, security and radiofrequency harmonization that could impede the growth of an ecosystem of connected, automated vehicles.

As an example, carmakers have been forced to recall a large proportion of the connected, automated cars that they have introduced to the market. The agreement of standards for secure remote software updates for connected vehicles could assist the industry in avoiding costly recalls, and, most importantly, in improving road safety.

Standards should ideally follow innovation, thereby informing the subsequent drafting of legislation. In the case of intelligent transport systems (ITS) and vehicle automation, standards and revisions to legislation have been behind schedule.

As you point out, ITS and automated driving are fast moving towards market acceptance and commercialization, increasing the urgency of the need for standards. 

The standardization process needs to catch up with innovation, and for this to happen industry players will need to increase their collaboration to agree the common standards necessary to achieving their ambitions in the field of connected, automated driving.

DV: What standards need to be set for AI?

CL: It is too early to say exactly what type of standards will be demanded by AI. The timing of standardization plays an important role in determining how effective standards are in achieving their aims. Standardization too early might limit opportunities for innovation, but standardization too late might be ineffective in that vendor lock-in may already be too entrenched for standards to assist in building a competitive market.

Industry players come together on the ITU platform to develop standards that meet their need for common platforms for growth and innovation. The ITU membership is following the progression of AI with great interest. The type of standards to be set for AI, and the timing of that standardization, will be determined by ITU members.

In line with ITU’s longstanding commitment to consensus-based decision-making, our standardization work on AI will be initiated in response to contributions from ITU members if the membership reaches consensus on the inclusion of AI in ITU-T’s work plan. Similarly, the standards developed as a result will be approved when ITU’s membership reaches consensus on their composition.

DV: What is the biggest challenge for setting global standards for a digital world that is so diverse in culture across the regions?

CL: International standards are critical to the operation of intrinsically international aspects of communications. In this sense, international standardization answers to common global concerns.

ITU’s international standards aim to provide an equitable basis for ICT development worldwide. However, the disparity in the standardization capabilities of developing and developed countries continues to be a factor in the persistence of the digital divide. This disparity diminishes opportunities for economic development and technological innovation. This is why ITU standardization has integrated a development dimension unmatched by other standards bodies, using our Bridging the Standardization Gap (BSG) programme to improve the capacity of developing countries to participate in the development and implementation of international ICT standards.

DV:  Is the aim of standards for OTT players an attempt to make them behave more like telcos?

CL: Telcos and OTT players are increasing their collaboration. We see evidence of this in ITU’s evolving membership – in recent years we have welcomed digital service providers such as Alibaba, Netflix, Facebook and Google as new ITU members. 

Concepts rooted in data-centre networking – concepts pioneered by OTT players – are fast moving into the telecoms industry. Standards development for network-function virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) has received strong support from telecoms players hoping to introduce more ‘softwarization’ and benefit from the use of general-purpose hardware. Telecoms and OTT communities are learning from one another and this is clear to see on ITU’s standardization platform, where telcos are building on OTT innovation in their efforts to introduce more dynamic, cost-effective ways of networking.

The ITU anticipates that this trend will continue, with telecoms and OTT players developing better collaboration mechanisms through their interaction in standards-development processes. 

DV: Mr Lee, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us and good luck with the meetings in Tunisia. 

CL: A pleasure, and thank you.

This post originally appeared in Disruptive Views.

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For more info on WTSA-16 (#ITUWTSA) see the ITU media advisory.

Chaesub Lee is the Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, following his election at the 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan, Republic of Korea. He took office on 1st January 2015. He acted as Vice-Chairman of ITU-T Study Group 13 (Future Networks and Cloud) from 2001 until 2008, becoming Chairman of that group in 2009.

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