How do you standardise the Internet of Tigers?

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A couple of months ago, I was present at a meeting in Geneva where the “Internet of Tigers” was discussed. The topic was raised by an African country – tigers are of course resident in Asia, although some do live on reserves in Africa, such as at Tiger Canyons in the Karoo, South Africa. Tracking of endangered species is a critical need for the world and a number of those animals live in Africa including the Mountain Gorilla, the Black Rhino and lesser known but endangered animals such as the Ethiopian Wolf.

Real-time tracking of wildlife is a use case that is great to describe the benefits of the future in terms of the Internet of Things (IoT) and also future networks. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of only being able to use a few people to keep tabs on endangered species, we could crowd-source twenty-four-hour monitoring from people across the continent and the world? Not just from tags on animals, but perhaps even from live streaming video services right across national parks, even from above? Advances in technology in the past twenty years have been such that this is a realistically achievable objective within the next ten. Such technologies could also detect and deter poachers and hunters from destroying the last of a dwindling number of “trophy creatures” on the African continent.

Tiger Canyons currently track their tigers using satellite technology but with more advanced network technology, the sensors could be richer, send much more data, have hugely better battery life and be less burdensome for the animal. All of this would be much cheaper for them too, provided that the network infrastructure is deployed to give the right coverage.   

So how do we get there?

The context of the “Internet of Tigers” comment was an ITU-T meeting. The International Telecoms Union is a specialised agency of the United Nations and the T sector looks after Telecommunications standardisation. As a UN agency it also gives a relatively level playing field in terms of every country in the world being able to attend, some of whom are sponsored, developing countries. Part of the ITU’s work is to develop technical standards in order to protect and support everyone’s fundamental right to communicate. The problem is they’re not very good at it. The intent and mission are absolutely admirable but while ITU-T certainly produces a lot of documentation, the truth about ITU is that quantity does not equal quality. This is represented by the lack of implementation of many of the standards in the majority of the connected products on the market – the main reason for this that I hear from manufacturers is that the standards are often simply so bad that they cannot be implemented. The same can be said for testing against those standards. 

Counterfeit Devices

Taking the problem of counterfeit, you wouldn’t think this would link to Tigers, but bear with me.

Counterfeit mobile devices are a big problem for African countries. The market penetration is very high relative to other markets around the world. The reasons are relatively straightforward – the basic economics of smartphones means they are very expensive for people living in some of the poorer countries, but they’re still desirable. If someone offers you a cheap, but very similarly functioning phone that broadly works and looks the same, you’re probably going to have it. You’re never going to be able to afford an iPhone so why not? Ordinary people can’t and won’t pay more. The same logic applies across the world when it comes to consumer demand for counterfeit products.

A number of countries including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have switched off these devices because they can cause havoc with network management; the radios are not calibrated properly and they simply can’t be identified – the counterfeiters don’t care as long as someone buys them. The components being used often contain harmful substances because they’re being manufactured and sold illicitly. There is however a real dilemma here. A friend from Ghana told me that the challenge for regulators is that counterfeit products still help to connect people and that improves their lives. On the flip side, the phones have avoided (high) import taxation and have security and quality risks. If those phones are turned off, where does that leave the user?

Solutions that won’t work for Africa

One particular work item in ITU-T looks at tackling the problem of counterfeit by attaching an IoT-enabled chip on every product, actually increasing the price of an authentic product. This shows how far detached these people are from reality and appears to be from authors who clearly couldn’t care less about what the situation is like on the ground in many African countries.

The proposed work item was thrown out of Study Group 11 of ITU-T only to reappear in Study Group 20. The exact same proposal was then accepted. The implications are massive: an increase in e-waste of 100% on all products (not just electronic) shipped worldwide. The increased cost to manufacturers will of course be passed down the supply chain, ultimately inflated at the point of sale to the consumer. The ultimate cost to the environment and to our world in consumption is absolutely not worth the limited gain. There are most certainly better ways. The worst part of all is that the proposed solution would not impact the supply of counterfeit products. The criminals who run such operations do not stand still. They utilise and challenge new technologies in a constant arms race. What is needed is pressure to deal with the source of these problems and prevent the export of counterfeits to African countries. Some of these issues suffer from the country-driven approach at the ITU – it is not acceptable to say that China is the source of over 60% of counterfeits (which is from an OECD report). It is deemed more appropriate to say that “there are a lot of counterfeits in the world”. This kind of diplomatic get-out does not actually help to fix the problem.

So going back to our Tigers, the authentic IoT tracking device would itself be required to have another IoT module to track the tracker, probably doubling its price! It is difficult to think of anything more half-baked or ludicrous. The proposed system also attempts to use a proprietary solution called the Handle System instead of the internet, thus potentially increasing the implementation cost by many times. How does this help developing countries tackle the problem of counterfeit exactly? The answer is it doesn’t and that the counterfeit problem appears to be a convenient excuse for a pet project that just won’t work. Ultimately, it seems that African countries are being failed by the UN when it comes to ITU standards that should help them. 

Digging into the problems at ITU

At the end of October, the World Telecommunications Standardization Assembly (WTSA-16) takes place in Hammamet, Tunisia. The Resolutions agreed at that meeting will lay out the activities of the ITU-T for the next four years. It is important, because strategically, this is what the working groups of that organisation will be working on, nominally to produce standards that achieve some useful objectives.

The problem is in the production of those standards. In some of the working group meetings, there are less than five people, sometimes from the same country. There are lots of mailing lists with no discussions on, just communiques from the secretariat. There are few technical experts, but lots of people from government institutions with policy backgrounds. If it sounds dystopian, imagine being stuck there, wondering what to do in the two hour long lunch break, or having to wait in Geneva from Friday morning until the following Monday for your next meeting. There are gross inefficiencies in the way that the meetings are structured in comparison to other standards bodies.

The lack of openness at ITU means a severe shortage of peer-review from experts who could usefully contribute their knowledge. In the age of the internet, experts from all over the world should, and could, be able to read and contribute to developing standards. Why should a UN agency close its doors to the people of the world in this way? What is there to hide? Why is it that standards-making for developing countries is a privileged activity for the few who can gain fellowships from the UN to attend these meetings? Couldn’t all or at least most of the standards making be done by conference call and on mailing lists? Other bodies succeed very well in attracting members and giving value to them whilst still being open and transparent about their activities – from open mailing lists to allowing external contribution for free, with no barrier to entry.

So not only do I think that in particular African countries are unfairly penalised by such archaic practices, I think they are led down a path where they are constrained by those fellowships to the point where they could be potentially held hostage by the ITU secretariat to decisions that benefit the institution or particular directions of travel which may not be ultimately beneficial to that country or its people.

So if not ITU-T, then where?

Well here’s a thing – other standards bodies were working on IoT standards long before the Study Group  on the topic at ITU ever existed (it’s called Study Group 20 if you’re interested and was started in 2015). There are few gaps to fill that haven’t already been addressed or where work is already scoped and underway.

Because the Internet of Things is not one “thing”, it is impossible for any one standards body to declare ownership. To do so is arrogant and misses the point about IoT – it encompasses so many types of things and network types that it is not monolithic. The ZigBee Alliance and ZWave do their bit, the Industrial IoT Consortium are doing their bit, the IoT Security Foundation are working on their bit. There are emerging radio technologies that will be longer range but low in data transmission capability. The list is very long and like the IETF, many of them have been building towards an Internet of Things for many years.

This is also tied to the long-term vision of 5G; IoT is linked in the sense that network segmentation can allow for different types of equipment, connected heterogeneously via multiple types of radio bearer. 5G means that for example, a personal health monitor could communicate along with a high speed streaming video – the two have very different resilience and data usage requirements. They almost certainly have very different physical and radio properties. New technologies such as Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) will all help to facilitate this new world.

Not surprisingly, many standardisation bodies have been working towards 5G for a long time now, so the ITU-T’s IMT2020 project is not contributing much in this regard either. Don’t get me wrong – I do think the ITU could have a role to play, I just think to do it, wholesale reform is necessary.

Representation of African countries in standards bodies is very low because the cost of participation is high. African requirements therefore end up being under-represented. That needs to change. One model I like is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C has offices in Senegal and South Africa, it is open and its standards can be downloaded and implemented for free. Participation is via mailing list and conference call. Anyone in the world can get involved. This is something that standards bodies should aspire to if they want to get a wider variety of opinions and expertise from around the globe.

So will we have our Internet of Tigers? I really do think so. If you are looking at use cases for 5G and IoT then it is sensible not to anchor to one standards body but to look to engage broadly across the spectrum. Try to use open, free, widely implemented standards from the likes of IETF and W3C, pick your radio network carefully and you probably can’t go wrong.


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