"Solutions to problems can be standardised, keeping local differences in mind"

Luis Jorge Romero, Director-General, European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) speaks to BWSC on smart cities, standards and more

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The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) produces globally-applicable standards for ICT, including fixed, mobile, radio, aeronautical, broadcast and internet technologies and is officially recognised by the European Union as a European Standards Organisation. It is an independent, not-for-profit association with over 800 member companies and organisations drawn from 64 countries on 5 continents. With over 80 partnerships and supporting around 7000 industry experts per year, ETSI has already released more than 35,000 free publications, and 25 percent of its membership comes from SMEs or start-ups. BWSC spoke to its Director-General, LUIS JORGE ROMERO, during his recent visit to India.   Cities are complex organisms that don’t present well for standardisation is what some feel. What are your thoughts on standards for smart cities? Standards help in the healthy development of the whole marketplace, while benefiting consumers. At the most basic level it’s because without standards it’s difficult to scale. It’s all about mass production and creating economies of scale. The other reason is you want to be able to choose from among a number of vendors or manu­facturers without being tied to one. This way, the cost of switching is not very high, if one of them stop manu­facturing what you need. Of course, it’s true that Tokyo has nothing to do with San Francisco or Lisbon. But there will always be basic services that cities want to provide and you can standardise these basics up to a certain level and each city can then build on top of that, specific to its needs. This is what we try to achieve. Tell us about the work ETSI does. ETSI is working on everything that has to do with the information and communication technologies space and we are very well known for our work in mobile communications – both fixed line and wireless. Our work spans those who know how to con­nect, those who build the product that is connected and those who connect it, to understand the communication requirements of that product. Mov­ing from the communication needs of human beings, what we now need is to understand the requirements of “things” (devices or machines) and what they want to say. For example, the communication needs of a wash­ing machine in the US are quite similar to those in Brazil or India! Open standards and open source. How do those two worlds interact? In recent years, we have realised that some companies need to have open source implementation, especially in the machine to machine (M2M) scenario where companies need the open source community to develop a reference architecture, as well as a reference to standards. We need both to work. Two things need to be considered. One is technical and the other concerns intellectual property, copyrights and licensing, etc. We’re starting to see how we can reconcile these worlds to make the most of both. What of competition versus collaboration? What impact does each have on the other? Actually huge; and the beauty of this is that history has a lot of examples. Take telecommunications. You had big companies delivering their products globally but those receiving them were tied to those companies forever and the potential of growth was very low. Then came the Eu­ropean Union’s single market that necessitated a single system across the entire continent and companies understood that to work together they needed to speak the same language. They began understanding the need for common minimum standards, at least, on top of which they can build or differentiate their products. At the risk of exaggerating, Apple couldn’t be as big as it is today if it wasn’t for the standards that are inside their prod­ucts. Because the standard existed, it was able to develop products on top of that standard, offering new features and services. Apple also has its own business model, which is quite closed in itself. It’s a model that works for them, with the service warranty that they provide in return for customers sticking to their product. Android platforms, on the other hand, allow a more open and standardised environment with both bringing in a kind of a security or trust of their own. India has set itself an ambitious goal of 100 Smart Cities in the next seven years, with private sector participation. Can you offer some insights from Europe’s own journey? I think it’s relevant for Indian initia­tives to look at what others have been doing because cities’ requirements are very similar. Even in Europe we are at the very beginning and it’s prov­ing to be rather complex. You need to engage industry and be careful not to try and take too many shortcuts to solutions. Solutions to problems can be standardised, keeping in mind local differences. How do you take all the complexity of a city and distil it down to solutions that work? Take city traffic. It has its own com­plex rules. Then take the example of driverless cars in an intelligent trans­port system. There’s a very simple rule for a car, despite all the confusing street signs: don’t hit anything. End of story. Imagine if every single object on the street had that very same rule? A machine can simply take a decision by being aware of its environment. Standardise that and you can add lay­ers of rules that are specific to a city or country. Now take walking – we don’t need any signs to tell us what to do; our behaviour depends on others’. At the end of the day, vehicles can behave the same way. That’s smart. There’s a lot of talk these days about M2M and the Internet of Things (IoT). What should we expect? IoT is a huge subject. The most difficult part here is not technical but industries or sectors with different cultures, ways or pace of working, in different places. You need to make them all talk to each other. It is human interaction that will be difficult. How best can all this information be organised, communicated or transferred. I think the industrial dimension will be hard but it will also be one of the key drivers in IoT. Take automation. Cars will not only talk to each other, but to other cars of different makes and models and with infrastructure like parking lots and petrol stations or electricity posts. We start by putting technology in place before someone comes up with a brilliant idea to get it to work, like it was in telecom. The scope is huge. What role for regulation? Regulation exists to protect citizens but it’s a little bit like the police – it’s great that it is there but it’s greater if it does not have to intervene. Sometimes regulation exists to align business interest with societal ones. A good example from Europe is eCall – the system by which a car that has an accident automatically makes a call to the emergency services with its location and necessary requirements. For industry that’s not business but it is an important public safety goal for the government. Industry can do things voluntarily or the government can volunteer them to do it. I think that’s the role regulation should play when normal market forces don’t work. But if the government tries to intervene a little bit more than that, it might hamper the market or innovation itself. In the end, nobody will wait for standards. Standards have been made by those who make the products. Sometimes it can be a tricky balance. The long-term view demands standardised solutions otherwise it will be difficult to scale.