National interests, international standards and MPEG

Having spent a considerable amount of my time in standardisation, I have developed my own definition of standard: “the documented agreement reached by a group of individuals who recognise the advantage of all doing certain things in an agreed way”. Indeed, I believe that, if we exclude some areas such as safety, in matters of standards the authority principle should not hold. Forcing free people to do things against their interest, is an impossible endeavour. If doing certain things in a certain way is not convenient, people will shun a standard even if it bears the most august credentials.

Medieval Europe was a place where my definition of standard reached an atomic level. However, with the birth of national centralised states and, later, the industrial revolution, national standards came to the fore. Oddly enough, national standards institutions such as the British Standards Institute (BSI), originally called Engineering Standards Committee and probably the first of its kind, were established just before World War I, when the first instance of modern globalisation took shape.

Over the years, national standards became a powerful instrument to further a country’s industrial and commercial interests. As late as 1989 MPEG had trouble displaying 625/50 video coding simulation results at a USA venue because import of 625/50 TV sets in the country was forbidden at that time (and no one had an interest in making such sets). This “protection of national interests” is the cause of the 33 pages of the ITU-R Report 624 – Characteristics of television systems of 1990 available here containing tables and descriptions of the different analogue television systems used at the time by the 193 countries of the United Nations.

The same spirit of “protecting national interests” informed the CCITT SGXV WG4 Specialists Group on Coding for Visual Telephony (that everybody at that time called the Okubo group) when it defined  the Common Intermediate Format (CIF) in Recommendation H.261 to make it possible for a 525/60 camera to communicate to a a 625/50 monitor (and between a 625/50 camera and a 525/60 monitor).

That solution was a “compromise” video format (actually not a real video format because it was used only inside the video codec) with one quarter of the 625/50 spatial resolution and one half the 525/60 temporal resolution. This was a typical political solution of the time (and one that 525/60 people later regretted because the spatial interpolation required by CIF was more onerous than the temporal interpolation in 625/50). Everybody (but me, who opposed the solution) felt happy because everybody had to “share the burden” when communicating across regions with different video formats.

International Standardisation is split in 3 – IEC, ISO and ITU – but IEC and ISO share the principle that standards for a technical area are developed by a Technical Committee (or a Subcommittee) managed by an international Secretariat funded and manned by a national standards organisation (so called National Body). Things in ITU are slightly different because ITU itself provides the secretariat whose personnel is provided by national administrations.

In the traditional context of standards being established by a national standards committee to protect the national interest, an international standards committee was seen as the place where national interests, as represented by their national standards bodies, had to be protected. Therefore, holding the secretariat of a committee was seen as a major achievement for the country that ran the secretariat. As an emblem of the achievement, the country had the right to nominate (in practice, appoint) the chairperson of the committee (in some committees this is rigorously enforced. In some others, things are taken more lightly).

That was then, but actually it is still so even now in many standardisation contexts. The case of CIF mentioned above shows that, in the area of video coding standards, then the prerogative of the ITU-T “for Visual Telephony”, the influence of national interests was still strong. MPEG, however, changed the sides of the equation. One of the first things that it did when it developed MPEG-1 Video was to define test sequences that were both 525/60 and 625/50 and then issued a Call for Proposals where respondents could submit coded sequences in one or the other format at their choice. MPEG did not use CIF but SIF, where the format was either a quarter of the spatial resolution and one half of the temporal resolution of 525/60 (i.e. 288 lines x 352 pixels) or a quarter of the spatial resolution and one half of the temporal resolution of 625/50 (i.e. 240 lines x 352 pixels).

By systematically defusing political issues and converting them to technical issues, MPEG succeeded in the impossible task of defining compressed media formats with an international scope. However, by kicking political issues out of the meeting rooms, MPEG changed the nature and role of the parent subcommittee SC 29’s chairmen and secretariat. The first yearly SC 29 plenary meetings lasted 3 days, but later the duration was reduced to 1 day and in some cases inhalf a day alla matters were handled.

One of the most contentious areas of standardisation (remember the epic battles on the HDTV production format of 1986 and before) was completely tamed and reduced to technical battles where experts assess the quality of the solution proposed and not how it is dressed in political clothing. This does not mean that the battles are not epic, but for sure they are rational.

I do not remember having heard complaints on the part of the industry regarding the de-politicised state of affairs in media coding standardisation. Therefore it is time to ask if we should not be dispensed from the pompous ritual of countries expressing national interests through national bodies in secretariats and chairs of international standards committees when in fact there are global industrial interests poorly mapped through a network of countries actually deprived of national interests.

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