The Telecommunications Standardization Bureau (TSB) of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) works on developing international telecom standards. It currently includes 11 study groups which are dedicated to developing standards which range from fiber optics, all the way to the application layer. Some of their study groups are technical in nature, while others are more regulatory in nature such as managing telephone numbers internationally, managing the secure use of IoT-powered devices on 5G networks, managing economic and policy issues, tariffs, international roaming and internet connectivity charges.
5G has given rise to many advantages but also brought with it a number of challenges. Bilel Jamoussi, chief of Study Groups department at TSB in the ITU, sat down with Telecom Review to discuss these challenges, some use cases and to shed some light on the ITU’s latest work in the field.
Could you give our readers some insight into what your role at the ITU involves?
Among other things, we address electromagnetic frequency (EMF) and its impact on the human body through setting the standard of how to measure the power of EMF. The WHO develops the health limits while the ITU develops the measurement standards.
We work on combatting the counterfeit of ICT devices on conformance and interoperability and the quality of service of the network, the quality of experience by the users on the INT 2020 5G networks, the core network, the fiber optic and the copper access to the network as well as the backbone on security and identity management.
Video compression is critical because 80 percent of the traffic is now video and if it is not compressed, it will eat up all the bandwidth. So, we also work on that.
We also have focus groups that look at new technologies and digital transformation. In fact, we have a group that has been working on the data processing management for IoT and one that has worked on blockchain and distributed ledger technology.
Currently, we have set up new groups to look at autonomous vehicles, the use of AI for health, quantum information technologies.
Quantum distributions are based on photons which provide an unprecedented level of security because if you do not have the quantum property of the photons, you cannot decrypt the traffic. It is essentially the use of quantum physics properties to secure the network through new cryptography and new security mechanisms.
We work on financial inclusion and the use of mobile phones for transacting money on the phone. Smart cities is a really big area of work for us because it is the catalyst for cities to use ICTs to introduce sustainability and smartness into any given city.
These are some of our new areas of work that go beyond traditional telecommunications and towards the new ICT and digital transformation.
Going back to your point on health and the impact 5G technology could have on health, there’s been a lot of talk about how the radiation levels could have adverse effects on human health. Could you provide us with a comment on that?
The limits of the impact on the health of human body are developed by an organization called International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) which is comprised of experts in healthcare and the ICT fields. They go to the World Health Organization (WHO) which develops the resolution on the health impact and the limits of the power and the frequencies that are used.
What we do at the ITU is take those WHO resolutions and create recommendations on how to measure those exposure limits and ensure that the base stations and devices are adhering to the limits.
Recently, there has been a big debate on 5G and EMF so one of our study groups, study group 5 in particular, developed a report that tackles the EMF issue in the context of 5G. We used MIMO antennas and higher frequencies and therefore, created a denser network with more radios and studied how it could have an impact on measuring those.
We are currently waiting for ICNIRP to publish a new set of limits that they are updating because the last one was published a few years ago. We are expecting it to be published by the end of the year and based on these new limits, the ITU will develop the recommendations to measure them.
What are some of the major trends facing the telecoms industry in the MENA region?
In the MENA region, we have seen that smart cities are critical and are a catalyst to developing a national digital strategy because the smart city includes all aspects of the various verticals such as the transportation sector and surveillance and sensors. All the vehicles are now connected and the data generated by the vehicles provides a smarter way of managing the traffic in the city, promotes safety and ensures less accidents.
Another area to consider is healthcare. For instance, we have seen the increased use of AI on mobile phones to provide early diagnostics so if someone doesn’t have access to a doctor, their best solution would be their mobile phones. What the ITU is trying to do is benchmark those AI algorithms to make sure they are at least as good as the doctor and in fact, they could even be more advanced because of the sheer amount of data that AI algorithms generate. Machine learning (ML) and AI could pick up on certain anomalies that may be invisible to the naked eye of a radiologist, so we are working with the WHO on benchmarking those AI algorithms used in the healthcare field.
The third area that I think has sparked a lot of interest in the MENA region is financial inclusion. This means the ability to use mobile phones as a means to provide more access to people who are not banked in the traditional sense, for reasons such as their villages not having a bank branch or they simply just don’t have enough money to open a bank account. Providing them with a transaction account on their mobile phones or an e-wallet, they will be able to participate in spending money, receiving money nationally or internationally and eventually building some sort of credit history that might allow them to ask for credit from a bank.
Could you tell us more about your latest work with regards to study groups and what are the main areas you’re focusing on here in the UAE with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA)?
The UAE is chairing one of our study groups on IoT and smart cities. We have been working very closely with Dubai as a Dubai Smart City project since 2014. Dubai is a pioneer city in applying the ITU key performance indicators for smart, sustainable cities. In fact, we published a case study with Dubai as the first city that applied the standard.
We also work with the UAE on developing capacity for the participation in study groups for the Arab region and in this training today, we are also working with the African region. We have about 40 experts and delegates from the MEA region for a two-day training on how to effectively participate in study group meetings and how to negotiate these important topics in the international scene. Then we also have a forum on the OTTs and their impact on the economic revenues of operators as well as the impact of OTTs on numbering because a lot of the OTTs require your phone number to get you registered which could become a little problematic when you disconnect your number because the OTT application could still be registered with your number and the they might still think it’s registered with you even though you have moved on.
These are just some of the numbering issues that the ITU is working on and we have regional group meetings for the African and Arab regions that are meeting here in Dubai. The TRA has been kindly hosting these events and supporting the participation of all these delegates. This will enable greater cohesion and harmonization of positions between the African and Arab countries.
What are some of the region-specific challenges for telecom operators in the Middle East?
One of the challenges now, with 5G, is that operators are looking at use cases.
The questions raised around 5G are: why should we deploy it? Is it simply for additional bandwidth or are there new applications that can benefit from 5G? These questions are particularly important in the era of IoT.
One of the promises of 5G is massive connectivity, operators are trying to find ways to take advantage of 5G network by connecting all devices beyond humans. Also, this connectivity brings security challenges. With millions of IoT devices, the perimeter for attacks on the network is increasing so one of the areas that operators are focusing on in both the Middle East and globally is the security element. They aim to ensure that their move to 5G will not expose the network to increased threats and that these IoT devices have a way to be identified. If they are identifiable, then their traffic can be secured so in the event of an attack, they can simply be disconnected from the network to avoid an adverse impact on the network.
In terms of the third application for 5G and low latency, we are seeing a lot of interest in autonomous driving. There are attempts and requests for trials, and as I mentioned earlier, we have a new group which focuses on AI for autonomous driving and to be able to really realize that, basic ICT requirements need to be met. One of these requirements include having very accurate maps and the ability to download those maps to the car in real-time so if there is a road accident or construction nearby, the map will be instantly updated and sent to the autonomous vehicle so the routes can be re-routed to avoid those unusable roads. The car has to be able to communicate in real-time with the road infrastructure and with other cars, pedestrians and bikers simultaneously. There has to be a communication channel so the car knows that there is a person crossing the street through their connectivity and not just by their cameras.