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Home | Development | ETSI, Dr. Walter Weigel
Dr. Walter WeigelThe "infinity Initiative"

Dr. Walter Weigel, Director-General of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) talks to Intercomms about why the new "infinity Initiative" with the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM) is so important in linking ICT research with the standardisation community

Q: What is the synergy between standards and basic research you are pursuing through the "infinity Initiative"?
A: Standardisation is no longer simply a question of technical interoperability. When 'IT' began, just over a century ago, it was probably sufficient that the plug fitted into the socket - something very simple. Nowadays, the goal is very different. It is fair to say that every country in the world and every region in the world understand that standards, especially product standards are part of today's market reality. For example, you can export a standard to another region. This enables better access for your own products to this region and market. Alternatively, you can put up your own proprietary standards in your own region. It then becomes difficult and takes time for importers to access this market. This is why standards are so high on the agendas of politicians and global industry players.

In my view, it is no longer just the big industry players and multinational enterprises who are interested in standards. Medium sized enterprises are now closely monitoring developments. Because of the globalisation resulting from the opening of international markets, they too face competition from other parts of the world and they also have to export their own goods, services and products. Industry players are also under very high cost pressures. In parallel to this is the 'speed' inherent in today's markets and technology. We see ever accelerating technology cycles with products such as mobile phones becoming dated after just six months.

In the classical product cycle chain, you would undertake research, a prototype would be developed and this would then be fed into the standardisation process. Then real product development would be done, followed by marketing. This process has had to accelerate to keep up with market demands. These phases now overlap to the extent that that they are no longer distinct. This is particularly true in the area of research and standardisation, which has led to some standardisation organisations starting with the basic technology without any real research results having been produced. Consequently, one sees standardisation on terminology, on the technology's impact - for example the health impact from nano-technology. Nano-technology is outside ETSI's scope, but is nonetheless a good example of this trend because its standardisation process began with terminology, methodology and then metrics and applications.

You might ask yourself where is the product standardisation? If you talk to a classic researcher, they would argue it's too early to standardise technology at this stage. Nevertheless, standardisation does begin this early and it is a reality we have to accept.

Q: How has industry responded to this dynamic?
A: Previously, large companies had to move their basic research outputs to applied research in a time frame over a typical period of five to ten years. That has now been reduced to just three to five years, which is difficult to do. Nevertheless you still have to do basic research otherwise you won't get new technology. What large enterprises are increasingly doing is outsourcing their basic research to independent research bodies and universities.

This is why research bodies like ERCIM and Fraunhofer are becoming increasingly involved in the whole process, as they are producing key technologies which are in turn used by industry. Outsourcing of research activity to independent research bodies is a fact.

If you combine the two effects; overlapping research and standardisation phases and the increasing importance of research bodies in the development of new product technologies, both through basic research and to some extent in product technologies too, you see why it is so important that ETSI, as a global ICT standardisation body, has such close links to research bodies, and this is why our partnership with ERCIM makes so much sense. Partnership is also beneficial for research bodies because they gain strong partners via whom they can feed their research results into the standardisation process, which is why both ETSI and ERCIM see our partnership as being mutually beneficial.

Q: That's the background of the "infinity Initiative", how does it work?
A: At the end of November, we set up the inaugural high level one day workshop. This seminar included participation from important researchers to celebrate the signature of our cooperation agreement. What we are doing at the moment is discussing how to fill our co-operation with life. I have a dedicated group in the ETSI Secretariat called New Initiatives and they are currently discussing this very issue with colleagues from ERCIM. There are several concrete topics we want to work on together. These include Ambient Computing and Ambient Communications, and we are also working on Grid Computing. We are also exploring the same Grid principle being applied to communications with RFID tags which many people believe is the next step for the Internet. Today, the Internet is mainly used by humans. If RFID tags, Digital Signal Processors and micro-processors all started to communicate with each other, even at very low data rates, then the Internet of today would probably face challenges, which it could not overcome. Many people talk about the 'Internet of Things' and RFID is one important aspect of this. Another very important topic we want to address is Bio-ICT or bio-informatics. This I believe, is where we will see one of the biggest revolutions in information communication technology. This research is certainly a little bit far away time-wise, but I think it is one of the upcoming fields which we have to address, and many of the colleagues who are working with ERCIM are leading research scientists in the field of Bio-ICT.

Q: Beyond ETSI and ERCIM - how might others participate in the "infinity Initiative"?
A: This has not yet been formalised, although we continue to work with partners other than ERCIM towards the same goal.

For example, ETSI is working closely with the Joint Research Centre (JRC). This is a huge organisation with nearly 2000 people. ETSI consists of over 700 members. The European Commission is not a member but is a Counsellor and we get some financial backing from that. The JRC is part of the Commission and because of this we don't engage in 'official' co-operation but we are working closely together and they are also part of the " ". We are also working with academics from the Technical University in Vienna who are probably leaders in the field of quantum encryption; using quantum physics for a security mechanism. We are looking for other leading researchers in Europe and the rest of the world although how we would formalise these relationships remains under discussion.

Until relatively recently there was no working level contact between ETSI and the JRC and ERCIM. We are engaging them now, but as there isn't a long history between ourselves and our research colleagues, it is important that we properly establish this relationship. We have to look out for new technologies and we have to offer standardisation platforms through the research.

Q: How will you measure the success or otherwise of the "infinity Initiative"?
A: We are meeting regularly and it is clear that everyone expects something real out of this. What we want to do is to have a yearly review. From ETSI's perspective, how we measure success is very simple. I will look at how many new technologies coming from research have prompted ETSI activities. Activities in ETSI can be very different; it could be an ETSI Project, a new Technical Committee, a new Working Group within an existing Technical Body or it could be what we call an Industry Specification Group (ISG). One cannot say exactly what kind of standardisation activity will result, but I will check if co-operation has led to a concrete standardisation activity. If so, I will say yes, it will have been successful, I hope for both of us.

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