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Home | Development | ITU-T, Art Levin - Global Standards Symposium
African lead for ITU Standards

Art Levin, Head of the Telecommunication Standardization Policy Division, ITU-T talks to Intercomms about the role of the Global Standards Symposium in helping bridge the Digital Divide

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Mr. Levin is presently Head of the Standardisation Policy Division in TSB as of 11 August 2008.

Mr. Levin was the lead ITU staff member in the organization of the two phases of the World Summit on the Information Society and has served as a senior policy adviser and legal counselor with the Union. He organized and was Executive Secretary of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conferences in 2002 and 2006 and previously served in the Legal Office. He was formerly the Legal Adviser of the OECD, is an adjunct faculty member at prominent American law schools, and has published numerous books and articles on telecommunications.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with the Global Standards Symposium (GSS) being in South Africa?
A: This is a big event in South Africa for us. The ITU-T Standardization Assembly meets every four years. This is the very first one ever to be held in Africa and it sends a very clear message; that we recognise that standardisation is not just an issue for developed countries, but for developing countries as well. This has been a long standing concern, but it really came into focus at our last Plenipotentiary Conference when a resolution was adopted which very specifically addressed the need to address and bridge the standardisation gap. Work in the Assembly is set out into basic estimates, which will set the future course and direction of the standardisation sector over the next four years. That will be an eight day event, being chaired by South Africa as the host country. What is really new, apart for the whole issue of bridging the standardisation gap is the first ever Global Standardisation Symposium. This was an initiative that came from the membership a couple of years ago. We decided to have it immediately before the Standards Assembly for obvious and good logistical reasons.

Q: What are its goals?
A: The GSS takes place the day immediately before the opening of the Assembly and it is an open event, not only to our membership but also to others who might want to attend. It will be a very high level event, really addressing some of the key issues in standardisation. It will focus on the need to bridge the standardisation gap, but also looking at some other key challenges such as climate change, accessibility, and also the fact that there are already lots of organisations already doing standards. There is a need to make sure that the work being done in this area is done as efficiently and as rapidly as possible. The GSS will last for one day and that will be followed by the assembly.

Q: How does it contribute to bridging the Digital Divide?
A: The ITU is universal; we have 191 member states and 600 sector members. The special character of the ITU comes from having such a heavy involvement from the private sector. The GSS is part of our work generally on Bridging the Digital Divide and developing communications throughout the world. It became apparent that there was an imbalance in terms of standardisation for developing countries. The imbalances show themselves in many ways, but the most concrete is that they were not very active in standardisation work in the ITU. There was a very strong desire to get them more involved and to find out why they are not involved and what we can do about it. This is one of the areas that come out of the Plenipotentiary Conference in 2006.

Q: Prior to the GSS what else has been done since 2006?
A: Since then, we have done couple of major initiatives. To bring standardisation to the field, we’ve had forums in a number of different regions where we addressed the problems in standardisation development in developing countries and we’ve also done a lot of analytical work to establish what we call the Ladder of Standardisation. This shows how developing countries can, step by step become more involved in the work at the ITU. Having it in the regions also makes it much easier for developing countries to participate. In addition we have also created the Standardization Gap Fund, which we will be using for various projects. We are considering developing some form of index to measure the involvement of countries is standardisation work. We hope to start that in the next year. There has been a lot of progress in getting communications to developing countries, the growth of mobile has been explosive in Africa and it has reached very high levels in other parts of the world. This area of standardisation is a particularly critical issue for the ITU and for the developing world.

Q: What explains the lack of participation by developing countries in the past? What do you think they can gain by doing so?
A: It has been a long standing goal in the work at the ITU to try to have greater involvement in standardisation by the developing world. Much of that work, again given the unique character of the ITU, is driven by the private sector. What was apparent is that there is of course a financial issue. It’s not simply the question of the price a company pays to join as a sector member or as an associate to the ITU-T. There is of course the cost of participation, which means coming to Geneva, which is expensive. Another is that private sector companies in the developing world were, until recently mostly smaller companies in the developing world and have fewer financial resources to participate in this work. Third, there was some perception that as long as the work was being done in Geneva, that the developing countries could benefit from the work anyway and didn’t really need to have greater involvement.

Q: What has changed?
A: Mobile growth in Africa has really connected the Continent to a significant extent. Parts of the world that were left out of the information society are now getting connected. Over three billion people have mobile subscriptions, almost most half the global population. The other element of the question, is that it is not just about communications. As ICTs become a more vital tool in everyone’s lives, you really need quality, affordable communications and access. That is where we think the standardisation work really needs to take better account of the needs of developing countries. Their needs are not the same. Clearly they are focussing more on mobile than fixed line communications and in general and consequently, our standardisation work really needs to take better account of the particular needs of the different regions. They are not the same. One of the reasons for having regional meetings is that each region has different needs, different architectures, different networks, different reliance on fixed line, cable or satellite and so each region has somewhat different needs. We really need to find a way for the ITU-T to better adapt to the needs of each region. One of the ways to do that is to go there and ask people what they need. That has been one of the really positive outcomes of these events.

Q: How does it benefit the developed world?
A: The ITU are a UN agency that deals very directly in commercial markets and we deal very directly with the private sector. I can’t really speak for the private sector but I would suspect that they are always looking for new markets. They are looking for more complex communications in the developed world and we see new gadgets and products every year. A lot of work is being done to improve the networks to convert to next generation networks, to improve the speed and access to broadband. That are also tremendous opportunities in the developing world; simply in spreading basic communications and then increasing the quality of those communications. I think it is very much the chance for some of our sector members to develop partnerships and develop working arrangements, to gain entry into markets where they have not been present before. We have seen a lot of new companies and large regional operators who are growing very rapidly in other parts of the world. It is a very positive business opportunity for many of our private sectors to better understand what is needed in the developing world and to have face to face meetings with companies and representatives from those countries.

Q: How will the GSS contribute to the Standards Assembly?
A: The GSS will be a very high level event. We have had many more requests than we can accommodate. In that short time, they will look at the issues and what can we do better to meet that challenge? We will be preparing a report and that report will contain a set of conclusions and the Advisory Group of the ITU-T-sector have established a steering committee to plan this event. They helped develop the programme and are also beginning to work on what would be some of the possible conclusions we could reach. Amongst the thing we are hoping to see are some good guide posts about what we could do to improve. Clearly the private sector is the driver of standard setting and we are looking for ways in which we can appreciate the way that the private sector can input into the ITU. Those are some of the conclusions that will be on the table for discussion at GSS and that will be the basis of a report that we prepare and submit to the Assembly.

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