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Managing standards

With over 860 members the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) produces globally applicable standards for a broad range of information and communications technologies, from fixed, mobile and radio to broadcast and Internet technologies.

“We support a broad range of technologies,” explains ETSI’s CTO, Adrian Scrase, “and we can honestly say that our standards for GSM, DECT, smart cards and electronic signatures have helped to revolutionise the world we live in.”

One of three standards bodies recognised by the European Union ETSI was established nearly thirty years ago.

“Since then we’ve learned to adapt our structures and behaviours in the face of a rapidly changing telecommunications market,” Scrase says.

ETSI provides a venue for its members to write the standards they need to support new products and services.

“Our membership is large and diverse comprising of manufacturers, research bodies, network operators and governmental bodies. While we are European based and were initially founded to serve European needs, ETSI has become a highly respected producer of technical standards used around the world.”

When it comes to creating standards ETSI works to make the process both efficient and fast.

“When you are considering a new standard critical mass is vital. We require a quorum of 4 members who are like minded to bring their proposals forward. They will be tasked to build a community of interested parties and formulate a clear technical description of what the proposed standard should, and should not, include. There is then an approval process and if it’s agreed, it will be placed with either one of the Institute’s existing committees or a new one will be created.”

ETSI comprises of a General Assembly which meets twice a year and has a board that runs day to day business. The board oversees a number of technical committees, specification groups, projects and partnership projects.

“We have sort to push power down to the technical level,” Scrase says. “Standards should really be the domain of the technical experts.”

Standards are evolving and having to change as the technologies the look to support move at break neck speed.

“Understandably there is a fear that standards will slow things down,” explains Scrase. “It’s an interesting point worth debating but you don’t tend to have standards going straight to market, it takes time for them to be formulated.

“Industry wants standards because of their obvious benefits. It’s no longer cost effective to operate in national or regional markets, companies are looking for economies of scale and to drive down component costs, and they want interoperability between different systems.

“Standards are crucial in achieving this and we are continually looking to speed up the standards process. Writing a standard is in the hands of the experts, so it is not time dependent but there are a minimum number of days that meetings will be required to discuss proposals and we keep members informed of upcoming gatherings. The process is in the hands of the industry”

Technological developments and the convergence of different technologies is putting pressure on standards making processes, but crucially the influence of bigger members is limited.

“ETSI has plenty of mechanisms in place to prevent abuse, both regulatory and legal in nature. The standards process has a number of guiding rules to which we adhere; our aim is to establish a consensus and that is well documented. While votes are possible we prefer a consensus, we don’t want a vote that divides our community ‘for and against’ a proposal.”

Many government bodies are members of ETSI providing direct input into its operations.

“The growing trend has been a move away from regulations to standards,” Scrase contends, “and while standards can result from regulations from government most legislators prefer the industry to voluntarily manage itself. Governments tend to only get involved to solve problems where industry cannot agree on a solution.

Technology drivers

The technology ETSI is contending with is changing fast.

“5G is an obvious example,” Scrase points out. “It comprises of many different components and we are involved in a number of partnership projects. 5G is dependent on specifications that we have written and, as such, ETSI has a pivotal role to perform in standards development.”

Scrase also points to the body’s work in energy efficiency.

“Whatever the system, there is an issue around energy efficiency and our work applies to many varied technical domains.”

ETSI is also developing standards for intelligent transport.

“You can see the results of some of our work in autonomous vehicles when it comes to data exchange and crash avoidance systems, all of which are dependent on radio standards written by ETSI members. Going forward we will have a significant role to play in this developing market.”

Whether ETSI is compiling standards for satellite ground stations or consumer goods, security is a critical issue.

“We have to ensure devices are secure,” says Scrase. “Up until a few years ago security was not seen as an issue; but today hackers are making systems less secure. Systems are becoming more complex and more open to attack.

“We have to assume that people will be looking to challenge new systems and seek out their vulnerabilities and, as a result, ETSI is playing a proactive role in establishing standards around security. Today it’s accepted that security cannot be an afterthought and that it comes before everything else. You cannot design a system then add security,” Scrase argues.

According to Scrase ETSI works closely with public agencies and experts to ensure that systems are designed to provide enhanced levels of security.

“All the emerging technologies we are seeing today, such as virtual and augmented reality, result in new products coming to market which in turn require new standards. Standardisation follows first to market products as we need to really understand the commercial landscape before introducing new standards.

“Standards are necessary as without them it would be almost impossible to ensure interoperability and commonality; users want to be able to use one headset and not be tied to one manufacturer or product.”

Scrase also makes the point that standards have an important role to play in reassuring investors looking to put money into new products and technologies.

“Standards provide a level of assurance otherwise all investors would make decisions on speculation,” he suggests.

Looking again at security ETSI has to consider possible future developments, second guessing what the world might look like in ten to twenty years.

“Take quantum computing,” Scrase explains. “If we are designing systems today they will need to be secure in the future, so we need to take into account the impact of quantum computing on current designs. And in a world where connectivity is driving nearly all markets we need to ensure the ubiquity of connected devices and how the data they generate is collected, disseminated and used.

“It’s hard to see how these various issues will manifest themselves as the rate of change makes it hard to predict.”

ETSI is working with a range of bodies and industries to address these problems.

“We are trying to become more flexible and responsive and are now allowing non-members to participate in the standards process. We need to make it easier to write standards,” he suggests.

“5G and the IoT are likely to manifest themselves in most future products, so how do we encourage industries to engage with the us? We’ve had real success with the automotive industry which has been adopting standards that we have developed together and end users, such as the police and ambulance services, are now far more engaged and active in working with standards bodies.”

ETSI will only succeed if we work with others, concedes Scrase.

“Working together is far better and ETSI has a strong belief in the importance of partnership.”

Neil Tyler

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