interview


Standard Bearer

Dino Flore

Dino Flore was elected to the chair of 3GPP’s TSG RAN in February 2013. A director of technical standards at Qualcomm, Flore succeeded NTT DoCoMo’s Takehiro Nakamura in May and chaired his fi rst RAN Plenary in June this year. Here he talks about the challenges of his new role.

The RAN Technical Specification Group at 3GPP is tasked with standardising future releases of 3GPP radio technologies—and that is indeed the output that most people see. But each outcome must be preceded by a lengthy and fiercely contested scrum in which the industry’s technology developers and suppliers jostle for commercial positioning, desperate to get a return on their costly R&D investments.

The TSG chairmen have to referee this scrum, ensuring that the right development work is prioritised in line with the requirements of the operator community. Crucially they have to be visibly free of bias, which is never easy when they’re employed by one of those jostling vendors.

At TSG RAN the challenge is intensified by the scale of the project. There are about 200 delegates to the RAN plenary and another 800 or so in the five working groups, taking the total number of participating individuals towards 1,000. Discussions frequently become heated and, for all the focus on driving effiency in network and spectrum use, it seems there is little to be had in the standards process itself.

“It’s definitely not very efficient but it’s not meant to be very efficient—it’s meant to be consensus based in order to get broad industry support,” says Dino Flore, the new chairman of TSG RAN. “Initial discussions can be long and tedious, just to get everyone using the same vocabulary and onto the same technical page for every issue. But you can only make progress through consensus and the reality of the process is that compromises happen all the time. Companies need to find some middle ground for the process to converge and the discussion to progress.”

In December 2012 Takehiro Nakamura said that the volume of work and study item proposals being put forward had become a “serious problem” and it is one that remains. “There are more companies contributing to the process now, and more delegates,” says Flore. “We are getting way more proposals than we can handle—and that is due to the success that 3GPP has had.”

Even when those proposals have been filtered to decide which will be progressed and which put on hold, the individual working groups still struggle with an operational capacity crunch that mirrors the data traffic problems they are working to address.

Flore has plenty of experience of this issue, having chaired RAN3 since 2009, and the challenges he now faces as RAN chair have their equivalent in the working groups. The difference is that, instead of prioritising the group’s responsibilities, the working group chair must drive technical consensus, prioritise the order in which the work proceeds and, most importantly, actually deliver what has been asked of it.

“These discussions can become heated as well because companies are very opinionated on technologies and they have different understandings of how a feature should be shaped,” he says. “But it’s not just company opinions that play a role, it’s personal opinions too. This is a human endeavour.”

There can be no more human issue than that of divided loyalties. A longstanding Qualcomm employee Flore has to ensure that he is seen to be genuinely impartial in making decisions the outcome of which could benefit his employer—and disadvantage its competitors—to a significant degree.

There are no specific rules within 3GPP to address potential conflicts of interest, Flore says, but this is one area in which the increased scale of the 3GPP organisation has delivered improvements.

“When 3GPP started it was relatively small,” he says. “Today it is a huge ecosystem, and this has increased the level of scrutiny on officials. I’ve been in 3GPP for eight years and elections have definitely become more challenging, with lot of scrutiny on the candidates, especially on their leadership skills and fairness.” And while there is a running joke among chairmen along the lines of: “people always blame it on the chair when things don’t go to their liking,“ he says, overall the chairs have very good standing in 3GPP.

Nonetheless, he recognises the challenge that splits in loyalty can represent. “I try to separate my Qualcomm interests from my 3GPP responsibilities but obviously I cannot deny that I am opinionated about things and I’ve reached some of my opinions through working at Qualcomm,” he says. “But as long as you are consistent and fair you can be opinionated and people will appreciate you. People discuss these things during elections and the candidate’s fairness is one of the things that comes under the most scrutiny.”

While growth has improved 3GPP visibility and the success of its technologies worldwide, there is scope for further progress to be made, Flore says “My extra challenge will be to improve RAN operations in order to cope with the increasing number of proposals, and potential overload situations, while keeping RAN efficient and transparent,” he says.

“This means making more effective use of meeting time, fostering discussion between companies, enforcing tighter project management discipline, and trying to avoid peaks of new working- and study item proposals that cannot be handled by working groups. Or, if this cannot be avoided, finding new ways to prioritise among them.”

Technical standards work has long been vendor driven, with the operators’ role being to provide insight into their requirements and, in some instances, to vote on the prioritisation process. Most operators lack the scale or resource to particpate directly; at the Release 12 workshop held a year ago, 42 presentations were delivered, only 15 of which were from operators.

But Flore is confident that operators have the right amount of influence in the standards process. “In theory the discussion is structured so that the main, high-level directions come from the operators,” he says. “You don’t open a new technology area without enough operator support. In our prioritisation process, one of the key metrics is operator support—they are important in the process and their opinion counts for a lot.”

In 3GPP, as in other industry associations and in the wider market, the bigger the operator, the more attention they command, he says. “Obviously if you’re a large or global operator you are heard a lot more clearly than if you are a small, national operator. And the requirements vary widely from operator to operator. A lot of small operators typically come to 3GPP to standardise a specific band or band combination for carrier aggregation because they need those bands standardised.

“The bigger players want a say on the main technology trends and quite rightly want to influence the overall direction of 3GPP. They have more of a say, and more influence over the vendors,” he says.

Clearly there are many voices competing to be heard within 3GPP. Moderating a debate of such scale and intensity would be a daunting prospect for many but Flore is confident that this debate will continue to reap rewards for the industry.

“With all the complexity, the competitive issues and the fact that you have to get a large majority of delegates to come together and agree on things, this it is not easy,” he says. “But, despite all this chaos, it has worked so far and it will continue to work. 3GPP has been very successful over the years in producing cellular standards that have been widely adopted. My goal is to contribute to the continuation of that success.”


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