Q&A: ITU study group chair talks about its Next Generation Network initiative

The International Telecommunication Union, a leading standards body, is sponsoring its biggest event in Hong Kong this week. Held every three years, ITU Telecom World is expected to attract 35,000 attendees from 160 countries to discuss the latest industry trends. Network World Senior Editor Carolyn Duffy Marsan spoke with John Visser, a Nortel executive who serves as chairman of ITU’s Study Group 19, which is developing standards for mobility. Here’s what Visser had to say about ITU’s Next Generation Network initiative.

Network World readers run large corporate networks. Can you describe ITU’s Next Generation Network Global Standards Initiative in terms they will understand?

One of the key drivers for NGN is the blurring of the boundaries between traditional voice telecommunications, data and broadcast communications.

Mobility has emerged out of nowhere in almost zero time to surpass traditional voice. It’s been 15 or 20 years since mobile networks were deployed, and what we see is that there are worldwide more mobile subscribers than fixed subscribers. Particularly in developing countries, it’s more cost effective to support mobile communications.

At the same time, the Internet has become pervasive. There is strong cross correlation between mobile usage and Internet usage. This is starting to blur the boundaries. For example, there are certain Internet-based radio stations, which used to be a broadcast medium, that are run over the Internet but intend for a user to listen on a mobile telephone. This example makes it quite clear that what used to be very distinct and separate markets are becoming close together.

I also mention cable TV because many people are using Internet access from a cable modem. Now what we’re seeing is a lot of discussion about television or video over the Internet.

We see the IP-based infrastructure, which is a fiber optics based physical plant running IP as the core protocol, as a very effective means for moving all of this information. Regulators and operators are finding themselves struggling with the issues that need to be resolved.

What is the status of the NGN initiative?

This project is aimed at providing the global suite of standards that operators everywhere can use for this [convergence]. We've taken the idea of services for both fixed and mobile carriers. We’ve taken the concept of access independence, which means the services and how they function should not be influenced by the means of how you access them. Whether you are on a mobile phone or a wired Ethernet connection or a WiMAX connection, the services should work very much the same.

NGN GSI got underway at the end of 2004. We started to get seriously organized to do the work in 2005. This year, we have seen quite a few recommendations moving into the approval process. The work is not by any means finished, but the ramp up has been quite remarkable.

What’s the timeframe for when the initiative will be done?

I think it’s going to be a project where we end up with a series of iterations. The first major set of deliverables will be largely finished next year.

When will these standards be supported in commercial services?

They already are. BT already offers in its 21st Century Network support for NGN. Carriers are now deploying services and infrastructure to achieve the NGN initiative.

Other than BT, what carriers have promised to support NGN standards?

Sprint Nextel, Verizon, Cingular. All the carriers are moving forward with NGN standards.

Can you identify the top three or four benefits that ITU’s NGN initiative will offer corporate customers?

A coherent and well-integrated infrastructure. Integrated services. Reduced costs. That means reduced costs for the whole infrastructure as well as the reduced cost of maintaining it.

What particular NGN services do you think will drive the most demand for corporate customers?

The telephone system came about because of the need for people to talk to each other. That’s still going to be extremely popular.

Where does mobility fit in NGN?

Mobility will be a large part of it. More than half of the subscribers out there are mobile subscribers. We’re already seeing fixed line subscribers starting to decline. Here in Ottawa, Canada, the number of mobile subscribers is growing but there’s also a noticeable decline in fixed line subscribers. Voice will continue to be a large part of mobile services. E-mail or messaging also will be a large part of it.

What should corporate network managers being doing now to get ready for NGN standards?

Having an IP backbone is essential. You also need good data rates to the individual, whether at a desk or mobile. You need a good solid backbone as well as good solid database access. With data networks, you need sufficient capacity to make voice run comfortably.

What about on the mobility side? What should corporate networks be doing there?

One of the things about mobility is that it is influenced by tariffs and the pricing of providers. Mobility has been slower to progress in North America than in Europe and elsewhere. A lot of that is related to pricing. North America benefited from the cheapest telephone service anywhere and the best telephone service anywhere. That’s one of the things that has to get sorted through. In order to provide mobile services, telephone carriers need to work with mobile service providers to get reasonable tariff pricing arrangements.

Where does security fit in the NGN global standards initiative?

Security is front and center. It’s absolutely essential. You can’t add it on afterwards. You’ve got to deal with it in the beginning.

Does NGN mandate IPv6?

It will support both IPv6 and IPv4, but we’re aiming at IPv6.

What advice would you offer to a corporate network manager about preparing for NGN?

Whether it’s Coca Cola or Acme Widgets, most companies are multinational. You want consistency in the way your telecommunications functions and interconnects. You need a globally consistent approach, and you want global standards in place. ITU is the one body set up to create these standards.

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