A laptop and smartphone (AP Photo/Invision for H&R Block).

Fast-Moving Technologies Need Bottom-Up Standards

Why Technical Standards Matter & Make Our Technology Work

By: Julie Napier Zoller, Senior Deputy Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy

Technical standards typically are not something we think about: they simply make things work. Credit for this goes to the innovators who ensure that the technical standards needed to make many of our devices work together are robust and effective.

Given how central telecommunications and information and communications technologies (ICTs) are to our economies and to how we live, it is crucial that they function as expected. Standards enable interoperability, as well as functionality, reliability, and safety.

For example, standards ensure that our smart phones still work when traveling abroad, that we can securely withdraw money from ATMs, and a grandfather’s pacemaker works reliably to keep his heart beating. In sum, technical standards are the unsung heroes of today’s technology.

Consider this: Wi-Fi technology is based on a family of IEEE 802.11 technical standards. They were developed through open, consensus-based, standards processes with experts from over the world working together with no top-down governmental direction.

Now more than ever, it is important to decide when, how, and where to develop standards for fast-moving technologies.

This issue has significant economic and foreign policy implications. The dynamism of the bottom-up, multi-stakeholder approach has become increasingly important as technological changes accelerate. In 2000, the World Trade Organization adopted principles and procedures setting out transparency, openness, impartiality, and consensus, as among the core characteristics of international standards.

Julie Napier Zoller (center) regularly leads U.S. delegations to multilateral meetings at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as pictured here, as well as the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. (State Department Photo)

Countries around the world have learned that anticipating and leveraging fast-moving ICT trends is an important economic driver. Nowhere are the stakes higher than in areas like Internet-of-Things (IoT). A McKinsey study projects the total IoT market size at $4–11 trillion dollars by 2025. Many countries are hoping to capitalize on that vast potential.

Some governments see such trends as opportunities to jump start their economic engines or to leapfrog competition. Others may seek to uses the standardization process (along with domestic laws and regulations) to mandate a particular technology. Such uses of technical standards to promote essentially domestic policy goals can undermine the integrity of technical processes and diminish openness and innovation.

Despite broad agreement on the potential of IoT and other fast-trending technologies, there is considerable disagreement about when to standardize and with how much government involvement. The volume of diverse applications makes one-size-fits-all standards development model impossible. Standards that do not have adequate support of technology developers will not find market acceptance.

Standards have clear economic and consumer benefits, which is why standards are an important foreign policy priority.

Recognizing the global nature of technology and trade, the United States is committed to working with industry and relevant SDOs to facilitate the development of international standards: in organizations that are open to all interested stakeholders, transparent, consensus driven, and based on principles of transparency and market needs.

This approach has long been a part of our laws and policies — most recently emphasized in the revised Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-119. The same philosophy is also reflected in the 2015 United States Standards Strategy, developed by the private sector and supported by the U.S. government. Who better to develop the standards than the very innovators who developed the technologies?

Dozens of industry groups and associations are working on standards for IoT specific applications or devices making the process look “messy” and disorganized. It is, however, a time-proven method by which the best technical options typically win out over standardization efforts directed by governments, without strong industry input.

This is not to say that government entities are excluded from the standards processes. Rather, our laws and policy guidance say that the government can and should participate in voluntary standardization work with the private sector, and that the Federal Government should, whenever possible, use voluntary consensus standards rather than developing government-unique standards.

Let’s come full circle back to the Wi-Fi example. The global availability of wireless Internet access based on a family of industry-led standards has had profound economic and social benefits, providing untethered Internet access to support our work and play around the world. Voluntary, consensus-driven, international standards development processes led by technologists and based on principles of transparency, openness, and market need, made it possible.

So, the next time your phone connects to a WI-Fi network, be glad that voluntary, inclusive standards development exists.

The standards that allow you to call or text or browse the internet anytime, anywhere were created through an open, international and transparent standards process. To fully benefit from the next wave of innovative technologies, we should all work to keep it that way.

About the Author: Julie Zoller serves as Senior Deputy Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

This entry also appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s Official Blog.