The risk of fragmentation of international standards – EURACTIV.com
This article is part of our special report: the future challenges of the telecom industry.
The EU’s standardization strategy tries to avoid the lag of European companies but could open the door to the regionalization of international standards.
At the beginning of the year, the European Commission presented its standardization strategy which aims to regain its leading position in the development of international standards, a strategic objective in terms of digital sovereignty.
Standardization bodies are generally open to all and based on the search for a consensus between technical experts. However, this open model also means that companies with more resources can send more specialists whose sole job is to influence standardization.
“Europe’s weight in standards bodies has been eroded by the growth of American and Asian companies that have deeper pockets to invest in trying to influence technical discussions,” said Santiago Tenorio, director of the network architecture at Vodafone.
European standardization bodies
For the Commission, the growing weight of non-European actors in the European standardization bodies increases the risk of decisions going against the interests of the EU. Thus, the strategy was accompanied by a proposal to modify the standardization regulation.
During the press conference, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton gave the example of Galileo, the EU’s navigation system. At ETSI, a European standards organization, the request to include Galileo in smartphones was rejected due to what the commissioner considered “undue influence” from non-European companies.
This is the only standardization request that has not been accepted by ETSI in its more than 30-year history, ETSI Director General Jorge Romero told EURACTIV. “But that was due to scope and timing reasons and not non-European influences.”
A Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that “the technical committee responsible for the standardization request indeed had many non-European companies among its members”.
While ETSI includes representatives from 48 countries, only the votes of EU bodies count in case of disagreement. Moreover, only EU representatives give the final green light for legally binding harmonized standards.
With this amendment, the national standards bodies will also be involved in intermediate decisions, which have so far only been taken by ETSI members and/or the Director General.
Politics or industry
In international fora such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the European position is that technical standards should not be politicized, as they should be driven by industry. In the ITU, the West could find itself in the minority because China has invested heavily in the countries of the South with its “Belt and Road” initiative.
The ITU is the only standardization forum where the countries of the South can make their voices heard because governments are mainly the drivers. Companies in emerging economies do not have the resources to shape standards like Western and Asian companies.
However, while European companies are being overwhelmed by European standardization bodies, the European Commission is calling for greater involvement of national delegations.
“The European standardization strategy contradicts the EU’s multilateral commitments to the WTO. In particular, the EU must base its standards on truly international standards,” said Rob Strayer, Executive Vice President of the Information Technology Industry Council and former ITU Ambassador to the United States.
American stakeholders are particularly perplexed by the European approach, calling on Brussels to counter China’s growing influence with a united front based on shared values.
“Political solutions are not the right solutions to solve this problem. If you’re not on the cutting edge of technology, you just have to build it, even if it takes time,” said Stefano Cantarelli, executive vice president of Mavenir.
Risk of fragmentation
The EU executive asks the European standardization bodies to create harmonized standards for legislation, for example through the AI law, the data law and the cybersecurity law. The Commission has made no secret of its ambition to be a global decision-maker in the unregulated technology sector.
While the EU may enjoy a first mover advantage in regulatory terms, it may find itself overtaken by non-EU players in how the rules will be applied in practice. However, the Commission’s attempt to shut down the standardization process could set a dangerous precedent for other jurisdictions.
“There is nothing that can cause more loss of value than the fragmentation of technical standards. This could delay technological advances by 5 to 10 years,” Vodafone’s Tenorio said.
Europe’s normalization strategy fits into a context of geopolitical tensions between the West and China. The politicization of technical standards could have substantial detrimental value on technology development, reducing scalability and competition.
“The Commission supports the work of international partnerships developing global standards and avoiding the fragmentation of standards,” the spokesperson added.
Europe’s lag is evidenced by the massive lag in the rollout of 5G networks compared to China and the United States. Meanwhile, the EU faces a balancing act between trying to regain a leadership position and keeping things together.
“Digital sovereignty does not mean isolation. It means being able to produce what you need when you need it. One possible way to solve this problem would be to invest in R&D to develop the most effective solutions which would then spread around the world as industry standards,” concluded Romero from ETSI.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]