Inside the ITU: A Q&A with Malcolm Johnson

By: Tim Young

The communications industry is awash with standards development organizations (SDOs), from industry trade associations to regulatory agencies. As this month's issue is devoted to standards and frameworks, we thought we'd take some time to speak to one of the oldest and most globally connected SDOs: the ITU-T. As the standards arm of the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency composed of hundreds of member nations, private-sector firms, and academic entities, the ITU-T is in a special position to observe global communications growth and make recommendations on policy and best practices that can reverberate around the world. We spoke to Malcolm Johnson, the head of the ITU-T, about the present and future of communications standards, and about the ITU-T's role in shaping telecom growth worldwide.

Tim Young, Editor-in-Chief, Pipeline: Why are standards such a crucial component of telecommunications?

Malcolm Johnson, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T): The growth in ICTs over recent years is largely thanks to international standards.It enables all modern communication despite huge variety in devices, connection technologies and connection speeds.

For a telephone call we start with the numbering system, the codec used to compress your voice, the signaling system used to initiate and terminate calls through to the fiber-optic systems, and repeaters used to carry that voice across continents, all standardized in ITU. The Internet would not have developed without ITU broadband standards.

All ICTs rely to an enormous extent on common technical languages, protocols and frameworks to enable communications between the networks and devices of different vendors, countries and continents.ITU’s primary function at its founding in 1865 was to facilitate cross-border communications between countries using different telegraph systems. Still today we need systems in different countries to be “speaking the same language.” Without standards agreed [to] in ITU-T, you couldn’t make a telephone call from one side of the world to another, and the Internet would grind to a halt.

Pipeline: How are standards impacted by globalization?

Johnson: ICTs are global by nature—they don’t respect boundaries. International standards are necessary to provide the interoperability to connect all countries in the world. Standardization is a complex business, and it is getting more complex by the day.


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