I've just got home from Geneva where I was at an ITU (International Telecommunication Union) standards meeting. This was a session of Study Group 16 which has global responsibility for standards about multimedia communication systems. This covers an enormous range including videoconferencing, voice and video coding, modems, data compression, ISDN devices, fax, textphones and various other bits and pieces.
These meetings are pretty impressive affairs usually lasting a couple of weeks. There were about 200 delegates and over 500 documents to consider; about 30 standards were signed off and the final approval process was started on another 20. The meeting rooms are equipped with LAN connections at every seat and most delegates use the LAN to access the documents stored on the ITU servers - it's easier to carry a PC around than a couple of thousand sheets of paper!
The more important sessions have simultaneous interpretation into six languages - this is also pretty impressive but very few delegates need to use the facility, English has become the de facto language.
Taking part in standards work is an excellent way of seeing the future; new ideas are often revealed first (suitably patented, of course!) and many of the world experts are there and happy to talk about their ideas.
So what came out of all this? That, of course, depends on your particular interests. I thought that the completion of V.92, the new modem standard, was the most exciting. V.92 builds on the success of V.90, the 56 kbit/s modem that is fitted to most new PCs. V.92 increases the maximum transmit speed from 33.6 kbit/s to 48 kbit/s, the maximum receive speed remains at 56 kbit/s. In addition to higher speed, V.92 cuts a few seconds off the start-up time and introduces a new "modem on hold" mode which can pause a modem session to allow the user to make or receive a voice call on the same line.
V.92 modems should be in the shops by Christmas and will include the new V.44 data compression algorithm (see the 16 October2000 column) and the V.59 management scheme. V.59 is a diagnostic tool that provides a standardised way of extracting a lot of information from the modem about the last call. This information can be used to diagnose faults and sort out incorrect configurations. V.59 was started as a consequence of a proposal from Microsoft and should prove to be very useful.
Study Group 16 covers much more than just modems but it would take several columns to give even an overview. In the area of videophones, the ITU continues to make improvements in the video compression techniques and new schemes are added to the basic H.263 algorithm all the time. Videophones still have a bad name because early ones had very poor performance; nowadays the performance is much better but many suppliers don't implement the latest techniques because of the extra cost and processing. Work has started on a new compression standard which is already about 30% better than H.263 and further improvements are coming.
V.92 modems and better video compression will lead to useful video communication over the Internet and could be a useful part of teleworking systems.