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Where next?

By Karl Heinz Rosenbrock, Director-General, European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI)

What will 2003 mean for the mobile industry? Promises of the "real take-off of 3G" abound, but so do opinions of 2.5G being "good enough". Multimedia messaging is rolling out and is seen by some as the service that will finally convince the world that all the hype and expense associated with 3G has been justified. Others talk of life beyond 3G, suggesting that 3G is already dead and we can leapfrog it to technologies, frequencies and services as yet undefined.

The world's leading second generation mobile communication technology, GSM, first went into commercial service about 12 years ago. Whilst beating all expectations, GSM is still being evolved through the standardization process, supported energetically by manufacturers, operators and service providers. When the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) was launched in December 1998, our objective was to see the start of commercial UMTS services in Europe in 2002/2003. So, in spite of the detractors, we may safely conclude that we are still on track for this very ambitious target.

Nevertheless, my belief is that the work related to the standardization of 3G will have a similar duration overall to that of GSM, that is, about a decade. That's why any talk today about starting work on 4G can only be an irritant and a distraction to the market players. It is surely significant that the ITU has just announced that it is delaying its work on 4G for five years in order, we are told, to ensure that the operators and developers of 3G have enough time to make a return on their massive investments. From the perspective of a standards organization, what can bodies like ETSI and 3GPP make of all this, and what impact may we assume on our future work? To a very large extent, our work programmes are determined by our industrial members, and their commitment to the standardization task appears to be as firm as ever (For, in spite of the depressed state of parts of the industry, standardization activity continues to be strongly supported). I believe we can conclude that all concerned still agree that standardization remains a vital task in establishing globally-agreed systems definitions, and in ensuring interoperability between systems. As at present, I expect there to be various centres of focus in the standardization task. The ITU will continue to co-ordinate matters at the global level, bringing to the task its unique blend of political and technical influence. Groups like ETSI and 3GPP, with their proven track record for working rapidly and accurately, will provide the detailed technical specifications that are the tools of the systems designers. Input from other industry groupings outside the mainstream standards process will continue to keep the technical solutions within realistic commercial bounds. And I believe that the valuable visionary work being done by bodies such as the Wireless World Research Forum will also be a vital source of inspiration to the ongoing specification work.

But I would make one plea - in these times of exciting innovation, let's proceed with care. Worldwide, we already have excellent standardization arrangements. As we move forward, we must take care to use what we have to the maximum: the temptation to create new groups to address new issues is understandable, but it may lead to disorder in - and ultimately substantially add to the cost of - seeking global common agreement. In these still-troubled times, that is something none of us can afford.

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