The ITU evolves with telecoms to standardize digital transformation

the ITU bilel jamoussi
"The digital platform is a horizontal platform." Dr Bilel Jamoussi, chief of the ITU's Study Groups Department, talks with Disruptive.Asia managing editor Tony Poulos

For over 155 years, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been developing the standards that make telecoms systems work on a global scale. But in recent years, the ITU’s work has extended well beyond its traditional telecoms realm to include everything from digital transformation and digital identity to AI, fintech and quantum computing.  

That’s because it’s these technologies that are now driving the evolution of telecoms, says Dr Bilel Jamoussi, chief of the ITU’s Study Groups Department.

In an exclusive interview with Disruptive.Asia managing editor Tony Poulos, Dr Jamoussi explains that the ITU provides a platform for its member states, private companies, universities and research institutes to discuss the new technologies and tools driving telecoms networks and services forward – and those technologies include things like AI, blockchain and quantum computing.

“So whatever is happening in the industry and in the government’s is reflected in the work of the ITU,” he says.

Dr Jamoussi adds that digital transformation is the key for economic development, and that while connectivity is a key component of that, there are still many other intersecting components that blur the lines between the standards bodies and the regulatory sectors that govern them, including the ITU.

“You need the telecom regulator to talk to the central bank and provide a an enabling environment for digital finance,” he says. “You need the Minister of ICT to talk to the health minister to create a platform for digital health. The transportation minister and the ICT Minister are working on connected cars. So … the digital platform is a horizontal platform. It cuts across the ICT sector – which is the bread and butter of the ITU – with the other sectors, health care, transportation, banking and so on.”

This is also reflected in the fact that the ITU membership has also changed in recent years – the traditional collection of telecoms operators and equipment vendors have been joined by new members from other verticals, from automobile companies and transportation to banking and gaming companies.

As the number of members increases, the potential for political conflict might also increase, especially around controversial technologies like face recognition, but Dr Jamoussi notes that the ITU has been dealing with that for its entire existence – which is also why it’s lasted for over 155 years.

Asked about a recent article from the Center for Strategic and International Studies that said the ITU is “the most important UN agency you have never heard of” (at least to the non-telco world), Dr Jamoussi said that was a good thing for an international standards body to be. “The beauty is that when a standard is interoperable, people don’t hear about us because the phones work.”

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