Paul Eisler

Enhancing U.S. National Standards Strategy

At USTelecom, we are rolling up our sleeves to work with U.S. government partners on implementing the National Standards Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technology. In simplest terms, technical standards are “an agreed-upon formula that describes the best way of doing something.” Internationally accepted standards are essential to American technological leadership globally and they underpin both our economic prosperity and national security.

Over the years, USTelecom has made significant policy and technical contributions to enhance U.S. standards leadership. We convened a coalition of six associations to develop recommendations to the U.S. government on how to secure and maintain an industry-driven and global model for standards development. The group continues to meet regularly, and we have added a seventh association to our ranks. Our advocacy heavily influenced a key report to the president from the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, which resulted in meaningful improvements to standards policy, such as ensuring that more U.S. industry experts can participate in international meetings.

This year, USTelecom participated in the Enduring Security Framework International Standards Group. We also helped NIST update the Cybersecurity Framework, supporting mapping to international standards. Our Council to Secure the Digital Economy – managed in partnership with the Consumer Technology Association – paved the way for a groundbreaking IoT device security standard, and more recently we published a primer on technology standards and specifications, which USTelecom has used to educate policymakers across a series of webinars and public engagements. We are currently in dialogue with legislators on how best to incentivize companies, including smaller businesses, to participate in standards development.

We are deeply committed to U.S. standards leadership, and we are partnering with the U.S. government across numerous policy and technical initiatives.

  • The market-driven approach to standards development should prevail globally.

The U.S. has benefitted greatly from the industry-led, international standards process. International standards, by their nature, are designed to open markets by allowing products to be standardized and introduced in those markets. This has allowed U.S. technology and a range of products to be sold and deployed around the world.  Part of the reason why authoritarian regimes want to monopolize the standards process is to change it to be more government-centric in direct response to past outcomes.

The market driven approach, which has been extremely successful in establishing the U.S. as a global technology leader generally ensures a level playing field where technologies can rise and fall on their own merits. Standardization is led by privately empowered standards organizations, with NIST serving as a convener for government stakeholders.

Overwhelmingly, industry prefers, and consumers benefit from this market-driven approach, whereby consensus is developed and standards implemented on a voluntary basis, and where a high degree of transparency promotes the integrity of standards. While this approach does not typically achieve rapid results, governments are less able to put their thumbs on the scale at the expense of integrity.

In authoritarian countries standardization may be shaped by party-state influence and lends itself more easily to political interests being prioritized over market and technologically-driven objectives. This increases the likelihood of a state exerting undue influence in government-led standards organizations, where governments get a formal vote on standards, enabling national self-interest or one country’s influence over others to outweigh market-based criteria.

The U.S. government and like-minded countries can take steps to promote and advance the market-based standards model in a number of ways, including by advancing trade policy that ensure technology neutrality. For example, U.S. trade agreements have included a provision on technology choice (technology neutrality) in the telecommunications chapters of trade agreements. Advancing this principle to apply to all commercial activity would ensure that all sectors could benefit from this important provision that ensures free and fair market competition for technology and prevents government technology mandates or preferences. In addition, the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement contains a provision to ensure the use of international standards and provisions to ensure technical standards and regulations are not used to create barriers to trade. Combined, these trade initiatives create a strong basis to promote the adoption of industry-led, voluntary, consensus-based international standards.

  • The U.S. government should create financial incentives to help offset the costs of participating in standards bodies, including for smaller and mid-sized businesses.

To increase the United States’ leadership in global standards, more private sector organizations need to become contributing standards members. Financial costs are one of the major barriers to increased participation by U.S. companies in standards-setting. On an annual basis, standards development currently costs the participating companies about $300,000 per engineer that serves as their representative. Developing a single standard is often an intensive, multi-year effort and, therefore, can cost companies millions.

There are specific actions the government should consider offsetting these costs, including grants to companies that find costs prohibitive and tax incentives to encourage greater participation by U.S. tax-paying companies. Funding should be made available to companies of all sizes. It is essential to increase participation by smaller and medium-sized businesses, but it is equally important to note that many standards are being developed only by larger companies. Therefore, incentivizing U.S. competitiveness will mean avoiding policies such as a cap on the maximum number of employees a company can have to be eligible for funding.

  • The U.S. government should invest in research and development, as well as education to increase the future talent pool of standards experts.

Ensuring the nation maintains and secures its place as a global leader in standards development requires a forward-looking vision that goes beyond immediate returns on investment. For instance, investing in research and development will drive and accelerate the release of future international standards. This is because standards depend upon peer-reviewed and often innovative, experimental research. In recent years, China has devoted substantial resources to ensuring its own competitiveness on the world stage. The U.S. government should consider ways to incentivize and unleash private-sector innovation to ensure the country does not fall behind.

Part of ensuring U.S. long-term standards leadership is investing in the talent pool for standards development. China is actively recruiting university graduates. In comparison, U.S. universities generally place a lower priority on promoting standards. The U.S. government should look for ways to enhance the STEM talent pool and support educational programs that equip the next generation of experts to sustain the economic security of the nation.

  • The U.S. government should facilitate travel to the U.S. for standards meetings.

Across our numerous engagements with government, including a recent NIST request for information, a question that continually arises is how to make the U.S. a more attractive venue for standards development. Having the meetings in our country gives us the “homefield advantage” because it is cheaper and logistically easier for American companies—especially small businesses—to participate. Unfortunately, global bodies often avoid holding their meetings in the U.S. because of lengthy visa processes or overt visa restrictions that make it difficult for foreign participants to attend. The U.S. government should look for ways to streamline this process.

By implementing these recommendations, government can significantly boost U.S. leadership in standards, securing America’s economic and national security interests.