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ITU Puts Convergence Center Stage

Some of the world's biggest carriers have turned to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for help in ensuring that tomorrow's converged telecom networks are standards-based. Their goal is to step up competition among their equipment suppliers so their investment dollars will go further.

The ITU has responded by setting up a unique Focus Group to deliver next-generation network (NGN) specifications by the middle of 2005 -- a very tight timetable by ITU standards (see ITU to Define NGN Standards).

The ITU's work promises to have a profound influence on the future of telecom on a couple of fronts.

First, the standards will embrace more than the concept of enabling carriers to offer all sorts of services over packet-based infrastructure. They will also embrace the use of a common network for providing fixed and mobile services -- a development that's likely to result in the whole structure of the service provider industry changing as wireline and wireless operators merge. This may be on the cards already in China (see China Moves May Hit Vendors).

Second, if the ITU's global standards stick, then equipment vendors will have much bigger markets to target and competition will become a lot tougher. This could favor vendors with low labor costs and giant home markets such as China's Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and ZTE Corp.

Carriers are banking on this bringing down equipment prices significantly so they can afford to race ahead with widescale NGN investments.

Carriers have "thrown down the gauntlet" to the ITU in an effort to create the required standards in a relatively short timeframe, says Keith Dickerson, head of standards at BT Group plc (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA) and a member of the ITU's NGN Focus Group. BT reckons that it's leading the charge on widescale NGN rollouts and fixed-mobile convergence with its 21st Century Network project (see BT Trials IP Network, Voodoo Teams With BT, and Seven Launch BT's Bluephone).

"We need global standards so we can afford to build our next-generation network. We need to be able to source our networks from any vendor and benefit from true global competition, and not be tied in to vendor-specific solutions like we have in the past," says Dickerson, who says BT is working closely with France Telecom SA (NYSE: FTE) on standards issues.

"We have put a high emphasis on the ITU because we need standards that apply all over the world. We need to be able to benefit from the cost savings that companies like Huawei can give us. Its equipment is about half the cost of [gear from] companies like Alcatel and Siemens. [See Huawei Gets BT's Blessing.]

"Other standards bodies can't match the ITU for creating a true global standard," says Dickerson.

The timeframe for the NGN Focus Group is incredibly tight, especially for the ITU, renowned for its long deliberations and sluggishness. "We didn't think they'd be able to work fast enough, especially as the ITU is set to restructure its Study Groups later this year, so it's in a bit of a hiatus," notes Dickerson. "But Houlin Zhao [director of the ITU's telecom standard bureau] took up the challenge and there's already been one meeting and the next one is in a few weeks' time."

The first meeting attracted about 100 attendees, from vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU). and Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT); operators; and other standards bodies such as European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and the DSL Forum. Seven working groups were created to deal with the following issues: service requirement; functional architecture for mobility; quality of service; security; control and signaling capability; evolution from existing networks; and future packet-based bearer networks.

The second meeting, set for July 19-23 in Geneva, aims to create timetables and deliverables for all the working groups, says the BT man.

And while the carriers want the standards as soon as possible so they can kickstart their converged network strategies, there's a more pressing need for the NGN specifications, according to Alain Le Roux, a senior consultant for network evolution at France Telecom. Le Roux is the chairman of ETSI's TISPAN technical committee, which is responsible for the standards body's converged networks developments, and vice chairman of the ITU's Study Group 11, which has been working on IP signaling standard specifications (see ETSI Creates Tispan and ETSI Holds IP Multimedia Services Workshop).

He says that while fixed/mobile network convergence is one major requirement driving NGN standards work, the other is the "migration of existing networks to new IP-based platforms using SIP as the call control protocol. This is an urgent requirement because the traditional voice switches are becoming obsolete," says Le Roux.

That puts even greater pressure on the ITU Focus Group to deliver quickly and set the real standards work in motion at the coming July meeting.

Delivering solid specifications for converged networks as quickly as possible will provide a major boost to the whole telecom industry, says Geoff Bennett, chief technologist at Heavy Reading. "We're at the early stage of this standards process, but it's moving quickly, especially for an ITU group. And, as long as the end result is a robust and useful standard, then everyone will benefit.

"The industry is in a position today where it needs the carriers to start spending again. For the past few years they've been doing little more than maintenance, but now they're looking at spending on growth again. But we need robust NGN standards to give the carriers confidence that they'll not be wasting their money on proprietary systems."

But, Bennett adds, no matter how good the standards, proprietary elements will creep into NGN product development. "A vendor would be negligent if it didn't introduce features that made its products unique. It's true that it could do that using standards-based technology, but the point is to innovate with something that will keep the carriers coming back to its technology time and time again. It's up to the carriers whether they use those features; they don't have to use them. But if they do, they have to face the consequences. Everyone knows how it works and what's happening. It's a matter of choice."

— Ray Le Maistre, International Editor, Boardwatch

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