Nº 3 2014 > Obituary

Theodor Irmer

Standardization visionary and father of ISDN departs

Theodor Irmer

Theodor Irmer, former Director of ITU’s International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee (known under its French acronym CCITT) and the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB), was born on 20 January 1932 and passed away on 27 February 2014.

Theodor Irmer studied in his home country, Germany, attaining a degree in communication engineering from Karlsruhe Technical University and being awarded an honorary doctorate by Kaiserslautern Technical University for outstanding contributions to the development of digital networks. While working for the Deutsche Bundespost, he managed its largest project: Conversion of the analogue telephone network with 24 million subscribers to digital operation, and its further development.

Theo, as his friends and colleagues called him, was Director of CCITT from 7 January 1985 to 28 February 1993, and of TSB from 1 March 1993 to 31 January 1999. He was the driving force behind many of the reforms that took place during his tenure.

The Melbourne Assembly, held in 1988, sparked a complete overhaul of CCITT's general structure, reflecting Theo’s view that “standardization is team-work”. He pushed for a change from technology-driven to market-driven standardization, with the aim of concentrating on the standards required by operators, service providers and manufacturers. He also considered that the people who develop and implement the standards should have a say in their approval. Another of his concerns was that developing countries should participate more actively in standardization.

Recognizing the value of regional standardization efforts, he concluded that “Global standardization is more needed than ever in view of globalization of telecommunication networks and services, and I would like to contribute my modest share to this goal”.

The views aired in Melbourne were taken up by the Additional Plenipotentiary Conference in 1992, which adopted structural reforms to give the Union more flexibility to adapt to an increasingly complex environment, leading to the transformation in 1993 of CCITT into the Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T) and to the establishment of the Telecommunication Standardization Advisory Group (TSAG). The Kyoto Plenipotentiary Conference in 1994 then approved new strategies and priorities for the period 1995–1998, pushing ITU further along the road to reform.

At the second World Telecommunication Standardization Conference (WTSC‑96), held in Geneva in October 1996, Theo summed up the aim of ITU’s standardization work: “Our mission is to develop on‑time, market-oriented, high-quality Recommendations which meet the demands of customers”. Of course his own view was that the term “Recommendations” was misleading, since ITU–T Recommendations were in fact standards.

He saw that rapid changes in telecommunication technologies (initiated by the “digital revolution”) and trends in the telecommunications environment (including deregulation, liberalization, privatization, regionalization and globalization) presented new opportunities and challenges to global telecommunication standardization. Theo enthusiastically took on those challenges on ITU’s behalf.

No longer a specialist backwater, telecommunication standardization had become a multimillion dollar business involving hundreds of experts, doing work that was of vital interest to an increasing number of network and service providers, manufacturers and customers. Among the most influential standards produced by ITU during Theo’s directorship were the following.

Integrated services digital network (ISDN) became the international communications standard for allowing voice and data to be transmitted simultaneously across the world, using end-to-end digital connectivity. Work on this first fully digital, circuit-switched telephone system started in 1984, resulting in the I‑series family of Recommendations. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the shift to digital technologies, computers and communications became bound together. Long-distance communications became much cheaper as capacity increased via submarine cables and satellites, and there was dramatic progress in public-switched data networks and other areas. This progress relied on ISDN, and ITU’s standardization work was crucial.

Theo admitted in an interview with what was then ITU Newsletter (Issue No. 3, 1995) that ISDN was one of the areas of work closest to his heart, emphasizing that “I am delighted to see the dreams some of us had, as young enthusiasts in the 1970s, come true today. There was a lot of misunderstanding about the ISDN because it was seen as a short-term product. In 1980, we had said in our first standard on the evolution of the ISDN that it would take some 10 to 20 years to evolve. Unfortunately, many people seem to have overlooked this statement and were disappointed when ISDN was taking off rather slowly. Today, we see that it is really breaking through as predicted in 1980 and as I have been called jokingly, the father of ISDN (certainly, I share this fathership with many of my friends and experts) it is really a good feeling”, he said.

The Joint Photographic Expert Group (JPEG) was founded in 1986 by ITU, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to establish a standard for the sequential progressive encoding of continuous tone grayscale and colour images. The JPEG standard is a widely used format for storing and transmitting images online, in digital photography and in many other image compression applications.

The international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) codes used in SIM cards, along with a security standard providing electronic authentication over public networks (Recommendation X.509), audio coding (G.711 and G.72x series of Recommendations), and the Telecommunications Management Network (TMN) all emerged in 1988.

In 1989, CCITT issued synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) standards (G.707‑G.803) for synchronous data transmission over fibre-optic networks.

The first standardization of digital subscriber line (DSL) technology occurred in 1993. ADSL, defined in the ITU–T G.992 series of Recommendations, used the discrete multi-tone technique (DMT) to allow a greater variety of services to be provided over traditional copper-based telephony networks.

In 1996, the first international standard for universal international freephone numbers (UIFN) was adopted. The same year also saw the start of the H.323 family of standards, which facilitate the delivery of voice, video and data over computer networks, and have been crucial in fostering the development of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services. Passive optical network (PON) technology was standardized (G.983.1, G.984.1/2) during the period 1996–2006. Standards for asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technology also date back to 1996.

In 1997, “The international public telecommunication numbering plan” (E.164) was approved for numbers worldwide. It provides the structure and functionality for the four categories of numbers used for international public telecommunication: geographic areas; global services; networks; and groups of countries.

In 1998, the V.90 standard appeared for the new generation of 56 kbit/s dial-up mode (before the advent of ISDN or broadband technologies). Work on the V.92 standard began in 1999, and the standard was approved in 2000, achieving a two-fold improvement in incoming data speeds. The J.112 standard for interactive cable television services was approved in 1998, fixing modulation protocols for high-speed, bi-directional data transmissions, and allowing the transfer of IP traffic over all-coaxial or hybrid fibre/coaxial networks. Recommendation J.117, approved in 1999, covers the connection of cable television feeds into digital television sets. This can be used in high-definition television (HDTV) and conventional sets, anywhere in the world, as well as for terrestrial and satellite television feeds. It allows for the passage of large amounts of data at 200 million bit/s, which is important for digital video and data services.

In 1998, ITU–T developed principles for negotiating interconnection rates, and measures to help developing countries adjust to the changing market (Recommendation D.140). It also introduced a new concept of international remuneration, moving from an accounting rate system to a termination rate system (Recommendation D.150).

Other standards approved during that period include the V‑series for computer modems and more than 70 standards on cybersecurity, such as X.805.

In 2002, Dr Irmer received the International Multimedia Telecommunications Consortium (IMTC) Leadership and Service Awards.


Special Report on the Digital Switchover

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