By Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General
This article has been adapted from my opening remarks at a G7 side event on digital technical standards, co-hosted by Chatham and the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).
As countries consider their post-COVID-19 recovery options, digital technical standards will be vital to create a more sustainable, more prosperous future. Their development is a core function of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as the UN agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs).
Indeed, international standards development has been central since the ITU’s creation over 150 years ago.
A common set of standards is like a universal language: it brings people, businesses, functions, economies and societies together. In a world constantly growing in complexity, common standards make things easier.
Standards are essential for international communications and global trade. Standardization can drive competitiveness – not just for individual businesses but for the world economy as a whole – by fostering efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness and innovation. As technical barriers are reduced and systems become more compatible, manufacturers, network operators and consumers all benefit from lower prices and increased availability.
Standards can avoid costly market battles and, for companies from emerging markets, ensure a level playing field.
They are an essential aid for developing countries to build their infrastructure and stimulate economic development.
The standards-making process, however, needs to speed up. It needs to follow a more strategic approach, with new standards in new areas reflecting real market needs. New technical standards for ICTs will underpin the effort to build back better and create a more sustainable, more prosperous future in the aftermath of COVID-19 – a goal central to the UK’s G7 Presidency.
COVID-19 has prompted a surge of interest in data, digital heath, digital finance and smart cities. Extraordinary advances are taking place in artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and mobile communications. For example, we have seen innovative 5G applications in healthcare, public safety, manufacturing, and education during this crisis.
ICTs are enabling the convergence of industries, bringing them into a shared space. But those industries need common technical standards more than ever – to ensure openness and interoperability, reduce costs through economies of scale, and avoid getting locked into proprietary solutions.
ITU recently published the detailed specifications for IMT-2020 radio interface technologies that will support several uses leveraging the advantages of 5G, from healthcare and autonomous vehicles to smart cities and collaborative robotics.
This new standard – the only truly global one for 5G – follows a collaborative process of several years between ITU Member States, equipment manufacturers, network operators, standards development organizations, and the academic community.
It now forms part of the series of ITU standards for radio-based telecommunications systems, including terrestrial and space systems, which will define tomorrow’s wireless landscape.
ITU’s membership include 193 Member States and over 900 companies, universities, and international and regional organizations. With so many sectors now depending on ICTs, we need this diversity to meet user requirements.
Delegates from everywhere are encouraged to engage in our standards work.
Thanks to “Bridging the Standards Gap”, an initiative I launched in 2008, developing countries now account for the largest share of participants. This resulting standardization also meets their requirements, which may differ from those of the developed economies.
When needed, we also bring non-ITU members to the table. For example, our Financial Inclusion Global Initiative, a partnership with the World Bank and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is open to central banks, commercial banks, telecom and financial regulators, and telecoms operators and service providers.
ITU has also a number of Focus Groups working on specific new fields or technologies that are open to any interested party.
Our joint Focus Group with the World Health Organization (WHO), for example, is working towards standardized benchmarking of “AI for Health” algorithms. Most recently, an ad-hoc group was established to review the performance of AI and other digital health technologies in combatting the pandemic.
Digital advances are vital to address humanity’s most pressing challenges and accelerate progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
International technical standards, therefore, are needed more than ever.
They can help to deploy new technologies efficiently and at scale, with openness and interoperability, for the benefit of all.
Collaboration is key.
While many organizations are involved in digital standard development, none can work in isolation. Initiatives like World Standards Cooperation and Global Standards Collaboration underline the need for each major standard-making body to bring its own specific competences to the table. An inclusive approach will help us all avoid duplication and pool our resources for the common good.
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