Who decides what’s 5G? Meet the ITU, regulating global tech and telecoms

By Joshua Chambers and Vanessa Gu

Exclusive interview with Malcolm Johnson, Deputy Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union.

What is 5G? How can we be sure it means the same thing in India as in Madagascar or Morocco?

That’s where the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) comes in. This global United Nations body regulates the telecoms industry, setting out spectrum allocations and standards for across the globe.

They are also unabashed optimists, seeking to bring the world closer together. “We are continually advocating for connecting everyone,” says Malcolm Johnson, Deputy Secretary-General of the ITU. “Connecting the unconnected is very important, especially if we are going to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Improving connectivity

ITU’s work on connectivity could be split into two distinct parts: work to support dense urban areas; and broader goals to connect rural areas.

Rural connectivity is vital because “because that’s where most of the people that are unconnected are currently living,” he says - as much as 80 per cent in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. This connectivity unlocks crucial SDGs, from making government more inclusive to achieving better healthcare outcomes.

Satellites can play a useful role here, especially in areas that have difficult terrain. “The return on investment is greater in urban areas,” he reveals, where the physical infrastructure can be so costly to install.

Dense areas face their own challenges, especially with the advent of 5G. Increased connectivity takes up valuable ‘spectrum’ space - radio frequencies that are used for everything from driverless cars to FM radio.

The ITU guides governments on how to maximise their spectrum allocations to ensure they can do more for citizens. “There has been a trend over the last few years to switch from analogue to digital broadcasting to free up more spectrum,” Johnson notes.

They are also trying to open up more spectrum for 5G that will provide high capacity for short range communication. This is vital for 5G communication, including driverless vehicles which require very low latency to meet safety standards.

The 5G revolution

Tech is constantly changing, so ITU has had to keep up. “These standards need to be produced quickly, otherwise people will be adopting proprietary standards, and then getting locked in,” he says. The ITU has adapted by giving a four week window for over 600 member companies to comment on draft standards. “If there are no comments after four weeks, the standard is approved, making it a very fast process.”

A particular concern is making sure there is interoperability between different networks, vehicles, devices, national standards and future technologies. “A major part of the work is to ensure that we have interoperability across networks,” he says.

They also want to set standards that help achieve broader goals, like reducing carbon emissions. “We are looking at ways of reducing energy consumption for these new technologies, and also how these standards can be applied for mitigating and adapting to climate change,” he says.

Johnson has driven this agenda since he joined ITU back in 2007. Since then, they have created research that shows how people can adapt, such as farmers “who can be made aware of weather changes and prepare for them,” he says. Farmers can also use ICT to make irrigation more efficient and smarter.

Inclusive tech

Healthcare is a second area of focus for Johnson. “We are working with the World Health Organisation to develop standards for AI,” he reveals. This is to ensure the tech is inclusive. “We are keen to ensure that these technologies, and any devices and services, are meeting ITU standards and can be used by persons with disabilities.”

The agency hosts an annual AI for Good Global Summit, which is the UN platform for “discussing all things AI,” he says. They are looking at how to use AI, Big Data, Internet of Things, and 5G to achieve the SDGs.

The ITU’s core mission is on tech and regulation. But, as with all tech agencies nowadays, that has an outsized impact on the entire world.