Michael Lazar: “The Internet, mobile and landline phones work because people were able to agree standards”
A DataArt consultant, a member of the European Institute of Telecommunication Standards Institute’s network virtualization workgroup, will explain how the UN regulates the industry, how open protocols continue to change the market, and how new standards are being developed technically.
- Who sets the standards in telecom?
- Telecommunications is not only an industry of incredible scale, but also the oldest technological sector of the economy, in addition to industrial production since the first steam engines. The question of standards here arose in the 1850s, when the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid. People had to agree that the signal sent from one continent should be correctly decrypted on another.
In 1865, the ITU was created - then this abbreviation stands for "International Telegraph Union" - it was to guarantee the work of telegraphs around the world. ITU is still the highest authority in the communications industry, the letter T in its name now means "telecommunication" [in Russian ITU is traditionally called the International Telecommunication Union, - Approx. Ed.]. Now it is no less than a division of the UN, the organization, although noticeably younger, but, you see, solid. ITU distributes radio frequencies, oversees the launch of satellites and makes recommendations for all market players.
- Who exactly does the union have in common? Are there any special officials sitting in it?
- Operators and equipment manufacturers from around the world participate in its work. At a lower level, there are working groups, for example, the 3GPP consortium is developing specifications for mobile communications. Working groups and subgroups formulate proposals for the introduction of standards, which usually should accelerate the introduction of new technologies, increase security or reduce costs. If there is no objection, the ITU announces a new standard, after which it will be followed by at least 193 member states.
- The implementation process can not be instant?
- When I say “follow”, I do not mean that the new protocol will automatically begin to operate around the world on the same day. There are countries where the implementation of 4G and LTE is still ongoing. In 2018, commercial use of 5G will begin, but it will be ten, or even 15 years, before you can probably use a fifth-generation telephone anywhere in the world.
In 2003, when I first came to Russia, my 3G phone started working like 2G. And this is a very important point for standardization - the 3GPP working group had to take into account that not all third-generation mobile communications will be implemented quickly. Therefore, manufacturers were recommended to provide phones with 2G support. Thanks to the fact that ITU is looking not only forward, but sometimes looking back, we can almost always use our gadgets even after crossing the border. Fortunately, no one announces: “We came up with a cool new technology and decided to make it a standard. Good luck! "
In general, supporting outdated technologies is a commitment that weighs on a huge number of companies. Remember how many years it took Microsoft before they could announce that Windows 3 would no longer work and stopped issuing licenses for its use? Moreover, they had problems with the vulnerability of the system and user support.
- 2G does not work anywhere?
- In some places, support is still available for emergency cases, but manufacturers are looking forward to the moment when it can be completely abandoned. This frees up the power that they can reorient. Say, to support long-range Wi-Fi. But what exactly will it be, ITU has yet to decide.
- Can the operator or equipment manufacturer make such a decision on his own?
- No, they can be compared with landowners. Of course, they themselves decide what to build on the site, but they still have to get a building permit. Moreover, many objects will not be available to them. The same thing happens with frequencies - they are sold and bought, but if you become the owner of a frequency, this does not mean that you can broadcast anything you want. This is governed by national laws, which generally follow the direction given by the ITU as part of the UN.
- Although ITU does not have real power?
- Whether to implement the recommendations of the union is the business of each state. In principle, they can be ignored. Another thing is that there is no reason to listen to ITU is more profitable. In the end, if you do not follow industry standards, you are technically cut off from the rest of the world.
In each country, ITU representatives monitor standards for wired telephony. Little has changed here since the 1970s, when the SS7 protocol, or Signaling System No. 7, was adopted, replacing the analog signal with a digital one. This is due to the complex billing structure: sometimes when calling, say, from the East to the West Coast in the USA, the signal can go through 10-15 companies. It’s very difficult to implement any changes here.
But the first telephone companies operated in very small territories - in principle, subscribers could not call another city. Then they began to agree among themselves - telephones belonging to one company learned to communicate with telephones established by another operator. Everyone was the winner, and the condition for this was the recognition of common communication standards.
By the way, before AT&T, which, by the way, is already much more than 100 years old, established a legal monopoly in the USA, Manhattan was literally wrapped in wires. This can be seen in old photographs. When different companies agreed among themselves and actually turned into the regional centers of Alexander Bell's company, the wires could be replaced with single bundles of cable, clearing the streets.
- How are working groups formed? How big are they?
- It all starts with an initiative - usually it is put forward by companies willing to sponsor a group, although sometimes a government organization can support it. Then all interested parties determine the amount of work. For example, if you decide to set standards for sending SMS between operators from different countries (a serious problem), you need to immediately decide whether the MMS transmission problem, which has not yet been completely resolved, will fall into your competence.
The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) network function virtualization workgroup, which I enter, initially included specialists from 11 companies: AT&T, Telefonica, Cisco, Nokia, Ericsson and other providers and manufacturers. It is very important that those who produce equipment also joined the development of open standards. Indeed, for many years they used the fact that any telephone company that once purchased equipment from them would be forced to continue to buy it from them. Since everything that they supplied was patented and should not work with “alien” devices or programs. In addition, although open protocols do not require mandatory open source code, you can use them for free - that is, hardware and software manufacturers agree to work on what cannot be sold.
- Is this a recent trend?
“The last six to seven years.” There will be no turning back, although open standards are a source of serious concern for network equipment manufacturers. But at the same time, standards allow us to create universal solutions suitable for any market - and in this sense they are attractive to everyone.
- Do open standards just exacerbate competition?
- At some point, the operators wanted to offer subscribers video calls. By the way, the technology was first demonstrated back in the late 1960s, and in Europe video calls could be made long before the first iPhone. I could do it from my American old mobile phone - there was such a small, funny, but still futuristic picture - but not in the USA. So, when the operator comes to the iron supplier and says that he would like to establish something like Skype, he can answer: “Brilliant idea! It will cost you only five billion dollars. ” Much more has already been invested in the equipment of this manufacturer, and in principle the operator could not turn to a competitor.
I was not at that meeting, but I can imagine how once representatives of the largest telecommunication companies got together and calculated how much they spend on hardware and software annually. It turned out that more than $ 100 billion. Then they came up with the idea that for that kind of money they could themselves be engaged in a consolidated production. As a result, they came to ETSI - the European Telecommunications Standards Institute - which sets standards, including for microwaves with televisions. They suggested that the institute create an NFV group - the virtualization of network functions - that could offer common standards for different communication providers. They were ready to sponsor the group - the initiative came from the industry itself, and, unlike other ETSI projects, is not related to the government. Now NFV - ETSI has gained a lot of influence,
- How is the routine work in the group built?
- For meetings that take place three times a year, usually from 100 to 200 people, representing 60–80 organizations, gather. The main type of communication is general ringing. In our NFV working group, they take place every two weeks and last about two hours. However, it is not necessary to attend every such call. Those who have something to say are going to meetings of any format.
- Is ETSI a European organization?
- I guess, yes. In the USA, China, India there are also working groups. But since ETSI does very well, the standards it has developed are often adopted on other continents.
- How many ITU total working groups?
- There are a lot of them. Say, the TCP / IP model did not appear on its own and was not installed by decree of any government agency. DARPA, the Office of Advanced Development of the US Department of Defense, participated in the development of the protocol, but then TCP / IP became the de facto standard. Just because the devices must speak the same language so that the Internet basically works. Now stationary phones continue to work, there are cellular and satellite communications, Wi-Fi, IP-telephony associated with the SIP protocol, etc. All this is possible only through an agreement. That is, some smart professionals gathered, showed each other presentations, argued, lobbied and reached a consensus: now the technology will work like this.
- How often does the issue of introducing new standards run into money?
- Almost any problem has a solution, the question is how much its implementation will cost the participants in the process. For example, there is such a thing as Premim SMS, when you are charged a special fee for sending a message to a specific number. Fraud is often hidden behind this, and the market for such scams, along with calls to paid numbers, reaches up to $ 30 billion a year.
You cannot forbid people to call wherever they want, but the phone can send messages to toll-free numbers without the participation of the owner - this does malware. Ultimately, the bulk of such money settles in the dirtiest hands. Calls to paid numbers can also be made by a hacked corporate telephone exchange. But even if everyone understands that the company has become a victim of scammers, it will still have to pay - this is how the contracts are arranged.
Ten years ago, there was a terrorist attack known as the "attack on Mumbai." More than 150 people were killed, and the financing of terrorists in the American courts was also accused of people from whose accounts the money was written off in favor of extremists by scammers. New standards could have prevented this, but restructuring the infrastructure would require billions of dollars. So far, the user is responsible for everything, but this may change.
- NFV Specialists - ETSI - Enthusiasts? Or for someone, the job at the institute is the main one?
- Some companies have people who get paid just because they constantly work in ITU groups. The organization delegating them pays, but pays just for participating in the development of standards. As a rule, such people are not in the same working group - there can be five, 10 or 15. They spend all their time traveling from one meeting to another, where they represent the interests of their countries or companies when discussing a variety of standards.
- Are standards always the subject of fierce debate?
- Imagine that you represent a company that manufactures SIM cards - directly smart cards with microprocessors. Can you calmly listen to how manufacturers discuss the massive transition to E-SIM?
- In the end, everything is decided by the vote?
- More often in groups they try to come to a consensus - to find a solution that suits everyone. Sometimes they resort to direct voting. There is a third option - the proposal is considered accepted, which does not cause any decisive rejection. If no one is actively arguing, then everyone is likely to agree. In terms of furnishings, this often resembles parliamentary debate, but the tradition of delivering a final verdict can vary from group to group.
- You are in the NFV - ETSI vote?
- We are looking for consensus. But this word does not have a rigorous definition once and for all. Therefore, often the work in each subgroup begins with negotiations, what exactly will we mean by a decision that suits everyone. In some groups that deal with Internet protocols, everything determines the nature and duration of the vague sounds that its members make at the time of discussion. When the time comes to choose, they sometimes just grunt - we can assume that they are not enthusiastic, but not too opposed. I was very surprised by this, but the Internet, as you see, works. This means that experience allows participants to catch a suitable solution to such meetings.