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ETSI sets out to develop non-IP networking standards for 5G services

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has set up a new Industry Specification Group to address issues of age-old networking protocols faced by new services, in particular 5G.

The Industry Specification Group for Non-IP Networking (ISG NIN) had its kick-off-meeting at the end of March, but the announcement from the standardisation body only emerged this week. The new group will supersede an existing ETSI group for Next Generation Protocols (ISG NGP), created in 2015 to look at networking technology needs in the upcoming 5G era.

The industry has recognised for some time problems between new services and current networking technology, including ‘the complex and inefficient use of spectrum resulting from adding mobility, security, quality-of-service, and other features to a protocol that was never designed for them. The subsequent fixes and workarounds designed to overcome these problems themselves incur increased cost, latency, and greater power-consumption’.

ETSI set up the ISG NGP in 2015, still in the 4G era, to address these issues, with the work now being carried forward by the new ISG NIN. The group’s stated mission is ‘to develop standards that define technologies to make more efficient use of capacity, have security by design, and provide lower latency for live media’, all of which are key 5G promises.

“I’m really happy to have been entrusted with the Chairmanship of this group,” said John Grant of BSI, who was elected as ISG NIN’s Chair. “Finding new protocols for internet more suitable to the 5G era was essential. Big data and mission-critical systems such as industrial control, intelligent vehicles and remote medicine cannot be addressed the best way with current TCP/IP-based networking.”

Referred to in a group known as TCP/IP, the internet protocol suite, including the packet data identification standards (Internet Protocol, or IP) and the transmission standards (Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP), was developed inside the US defence department in the 1970s for transmitting text-based data between fixed computers.

When internet started to be widely adopted for civil use, there were discussions of building new networking technologies to handle the increased internet usage. In the end however, engineers decided to overlay new technologies on top the existing TCP/IP infrastructure.

“A lot of design and development happened to kind of rescue [it],” said Bilel Jamoussi, head of the ITU’s study groups responsible for ratifying technical standards during an FT interview. “We are now, I think, at another turning point, of saying, is that enough, or do we need something new?”

Built on the similar premise that the current TCP/IP infrastructure is no longer able to support demands from new technologies and new services, a Chinese proposal, named ‘New IP’, was presented behind closed doors over a year ago at the ITU’s Geneva head office by delegates from Huawei, China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT). It was only reported to the outside world when the FT got hold of the files.

Though scant in details, the fundamental scheme of the Chinese proposal is to replace the current open, flat, global, almost ‘wide wild web’ with a top-down approach to Internet management which ISPs, operators, and ultimately sovereign states, would have the overall control. The story was covered in detail by Light Reading, our sister publication.

Whether the announcement of ETSI’s new ISG NIN, two weeks after the meeting took place, is a response to the media coverage of the China plan, is anybody’s guess. The focus of the new group is different from the grandstand of the Chinese proposal: it is specific (targeted at supporting 5G services), phased (starting with private networks before being applied to public networks, starting from core networks before extending to the access), and addressing the underlying technology instead of looking at the control of the internet, or the lack of it.

To look at the situation from a positive perspective, at least both the Chinese party and ETSI, and ITU-T for that matter, agree that the TCP/IP infrastructure is getting obsolete.

“The IP stack and OSI layer model have undeniably enabled global connectivity – but since they originated in the 1970s, their design reflects the demands and capabilities of that era,” said Kevin Smith of Vodafone, who had been the chair of ISG NGP and was elected as Vice Chair of ISG NIN. “Reassessing the fundamental design principles of network protocols offers the opportunity to deliver performance, security and efficiency gains for 2020 access networks and use cases, and may be achieved with simplification rather than expensive add-ons. The work of ETSI ISG NIN, in co-operation with industry organizations, can provide operators with a cutting-edge protocol suite to add to their service portfolio.”

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