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Bridging the standardization gap
An ITU report looks at how to measure and improve countries’ participation in standardization work
 
 
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A central part of ITU’s mission is to develop technical standards (called “Recommendations”) that make it easier to spread the benefits of information and communication technologies (ICT) worldwide. This work takes place in the Radiocommunication Sector (ITU–R) and in the Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T). However, there is a disparity between developed and developing countries in how far they are involved in the process — what has been termed the “standardization gap”.

Such inequality is a factor in the persistence of the digital divide. All countries need to be able to help determine standards, and know how to implement them, in order to reflect their interests and enjoy better opportunities for economic development and technological innovation. To tackle the issue, and at the request of the membership, ITU–T has embarked on an initiative called “Bridging the Standardization Gap”. A research project by the Sector led to a major analytic report * in December 2009 on what can be done to improve the capacity of developing countries to participate in standardization, including descriptions of best practice and the situation in various nations.

Why closing the gap matters

Since work began on the “Bridging the Standardization Gap” project, significant progress has been achieved in developing countries’ participation in standards work and management of ITU–T study groups, as well as in the creation of regional groups and more meetings away from Geneva. However, a gap persists, as illustrated by the origins of industry representatives attending the most recent ITU World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly in 2008: two-thirds were from developed countries (see Figure 1).

There are fewer ICT firms in the developing world and, because of the highly specialized and technical nature of standards, this field is sometimes viewed as purely technical. But ICT standards are not only necessary for ensuring interoperability and connectivity within a global information infrastructure; their use can also have significant social and economic effects. The following are some examples.

Figure 1 — Industry representatives attending the ITU World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly 2008, by country of origin
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Government services

The use of ICT standards can improve the functioning of government by, for instance, helping agencies to work together and reliably exchange information. Following natural disasters, it is vital for government agencies, rescue workers and others to be able to communicate using interoperable technologies. National security is another area in which technical standards play an increasing role, such as in protecting critical infrastructure from cyberattacks. Governments can better manage data in digital archives using a standardized interface, and standards underpin the provision of information and services to citizens online.

Public policy

Decisions about how a standard is defined can have implications for a wide range of public policy issues. For instance, the design of encryption standards affects not only national security, but also individual privacy online and the security of financial transactions. The emerging area of e-health has the potential to improve access to medical services in the developing world. Whether there is a standardized format for electronic medical (and other) records can determine the degree of interoperability among systems, and the security, privacy, and accessibility of these data.

Innovation and competitiveness

Access to ICT standards is a critical factor in a country’s global economic competitiveness. These standards can provide a common platform on which innovation can proceed, giving developing countries the opportunity to create products for a world market. Conversely, if standards are not available (or if their use requires high royalty payments), there is less chance for emerging markets to become competitive. In the context of ICT globalization, technical interoperability is a precursor to economic links.

Examples from Mali and Mongolia

The report cites examples of responses to a questionnaire sent to administrations to discover the status of their activities on standardization.

Mali

Mali has relatively few experts on standardization compared with other countries surveyed. Some participate in ITU study groups, but there is no involvement by private industry in standards development, no government funding, and no well-defined national standards body. Nevertheless, there is a national ICT agency, and some information on standards is available in institutions of tertiary education, as well as through online training courses and materials, such as those provided by ITU.

Mongolia

In Mongolia, standards policy is developed by the Information, Communications, Technology and Post Authority, while the Mongolian Agency for Standardization and Metrology manages procedures. Its functions include cooperation with international standards organizations, approving and publishing all Mongolian standards, and providing training. A law on “Standardization and Conformity Assessment” was adopted in 2003, which says that “the purpose of standardization is to protect public interest, human health, the environment and security of the nation and enhance the compatibility of products.” A growing number of standards are being adopted and the private sector is well represented in standards development. However, limited technical infrastructure hinders broader public involvement, and there are few educational opportunities in standardization.

 

The world of knowledge

The interoperability afforded by standards leads to new ways for knowledge to be exchanged, within countries and around the world. This provides citizens in developing countries with access to online education, for example, and allows them to participate more actively in economic, cultural and political life.

Problems resulting from not adopting universal standards can drive up the cost of day-to-day business, government and consumer activities. While governments must spend limited resources wisely, not using ICT standards well can result in inefficient and costly technology infrastructure, or products that are not well suited to the country’s needs.

There are several possible reasons for exclusion from standards development. Developing countries may be late entrants into the process. Some may have inadequate technical means to access standards or participate online in creating them. Others may not have the funding necessary to attend meetings and conferences abroad, or may lack experts in standardization. Such countries then have to accept the design choices and associated policy consequences of dominant standards, without necessarily having had input into these choices to reflect particular circumstances and concerns.

Assessing standards capability

The report describes how ITU–T is creating a method for assessing a country’s capabilities in the area of standardization. Initially, countries were surveyed through a self-assessment questionnaire to determine their capacity to develop standards; relevant human resources; government policy, and use of standards.

The responses to the questionnaire and other data will be used to develop a Standardization Capability Index (SCI), as part of a joint project with the Korea Communications Commission and the Telecommunication Technology Association, both from the Republic of Korea. Using the SCI should identify more precisely the standardization gap experienced in particular countries and help to define practical measures for improvement. As well as allowing needs and trends to be spotted, the SCI is intended as a tool for governments when formulating policy.

Based on the research so far, countries generally fall into one of four national categories of standards capability: low, basic, intermediate or advanced.

 
Figure 2 — The ladder of
standardization development
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Level 1 (low standards capability) applies to a very small number of developing countries, which have little direct involvement in standardization activities, other than as buyers of ICT products based on universal standards. They are usually net importers of ICT technology rather than developers and manufacturers, and they do not have a significant base of private industry, research institutions or government agencies involved in adopting standards. Nevertheless, Level 1 countries can still experience significant benefits by, for instance, using products based on universal ICT standards within national telecommunication infrastructure, so as to provide the interoperability with global networks that is necessary for opening up economic opportunities. They can also benefit from improvements in public services, as described above.

Level 2 (basic standards capability) refers to countries that, in addition to using standardized ICT products, have private industry, government agencies or research institutions that adopt and implement technical standards in products or services created within the country — allowing them also to find a market abroad. Countries at this level are not involved in the work of regional or international standards development organizations to any great extent, but they have access to the organizations’ output and might have made efforts to adopt such standards nationally. They are most likely to limit their participation in standardization issues to regulatory and administrative aspects (such as country code assignments and accounting rates), rather than more technical activities. Compared with Level 1, these countries are more able to offer entrepreneurial opportunities and compete in international markets.

Level 3 (intermediate standards capability) describes countries engaged in standardization activities in three ways: they use ICT products based on universal standards; they implement standards within products manufactured nationally, and they have experts who participate in regional and international standards-development processes, including on technical issues. This means that they are able to influence the design choices and associated policy consequences of standards. Also, there is some market advantage in later product development, because manufacturers involved in designing standards have a chance to make the case for selecting aspects that are compatible with their existing and planned product lines. In addition, participation means the country’s experts are exposed to a greater knowledge base that assists their future work and technological innovation.

Level 4 (advanced standards capability) incorporates all aspects of the previous levels and adds strategic factors. These countries have national strategies for using ICT standards to maximize their economic positions and to support innovation policy; market influence can be exerted nationally by using procurement policies or by developing effective partnerships and incentive structures between a country's public and private entities. Countries at this level also have adequate funding for standardization activities, in the private or public sector; they produce numbers of standards experts, and they influence the international and regional direction of new ICT standards.

Climbing the ladder

These four levels can be related to the “Ladder of Standardization Development” (see Figure 2) developed by ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau. It shows how countries can engage in different levels of participation in the ITU–T standardization process — from simply using ITU–T Recommendations, through membership of study groups and regional forums, to making written contributions and taking a leadership role.

The policy decisions that countries can take in order to advance their participation in standardization work are also outlined in the report as a set of best practices. It says that a national ICT standards strategy is essential, and should include an inventory of what is currently in place in terms of standards usage, policies, regulations, development activities, institutions, and education. A budget should be described for government involvement in this field, and the strategy should define the roles and responsibilities of various institutions, across the full range of public or private stakeholders. Also, it should specify ways to deal with important topics such as cybersecurity, and the protection of critical infrastructure and personal data. To advise the government, a high-level standards advisory council should be formed from experts from industry, academia and relevant organizations.

Countries with advanced standards capability usually have a multi-stakeholder ICT standards body made up of representatives from industry, government, academia, and civil society. The purpose of such a body is to develop national standards, participate in regional processes, select international standards for domestic deployment, publish and promote the use of standards, and perform an educational function.

ITU’s ongoing work

Under the “Bridging the Standardization Gap” initiative, a voluntary fund has been established by ITU to finance work programmes, including seminars and training. Having an accurate picture of the problem is a fundamental requirement, and research to date, as well as the Standardization Capability Index, will become a valuable tool in achieving this.

A workshop was held in Fiji in September 2009 to provide concrete assistance on bridging the gap, and more are being planned. Participation in standardization work can take many forms, and it is part of ITU’s mission to help developing countries at every stage so that all can gain the economic and social benefits of closing the standardization gap.

 

* “Bridging the standardization gap — ITU–T Research Project: Measuring and Reducing the Standards Gap,” December 2009. The report can be downloaded at www.itu.int/oth/T3202000001/en. It benefited from the support of the Korea Communication Commission and the Telecommunication Technology Association, with the principal contribution by Dr Laura DeNardis, Executive Director, Yale Information Society Project, and Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School, United States.

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