Wireless Systems Design

Will The U.S. Continue To Lead Wireless Standards?

One measure of a region's technological power is its ability to set global standards. This capability directly reflects the region's knowledge base and global market share. Standards serve as milestones for the technologies as well. It's well known that de-facto standards mark the first step in the initial acceptance of a technology. As that technology matures, the real fun begins in moving from de-facto to fully accepted standard!

For evidence of this trend, examine the recent development process for the IEEE 802.11g standard. Intersil (www.intersil.com) and Texas Instruments (www.ti.com) spent more than a year's time battling over which proprietary de-facto wireless-networking standard would be accepted as the technology of choice. The fight was fueled by necessity and—ultimately—company preservation. After all, the company that controls the standard will initially control the market.

Consensus standards like IEEE 802.11g attempt to resolve technological incompatibilities. Instead of being a purely logical resolution of technical differences, this process is rife with political shenanigans and posturing. The battle between Intersil and Texas Instruments certainly drives that point home. In fact, Otto von Bismark's old adage about sausage and legislation might well be applied to the creation of technical standards. To put it in more blunt terms: If you like standards, you probably would not want to see how they're made.

Like it or not, consensus standards are an essential part of today's consumer-driven wireless technology. The success of the 802.11 standards in particular has helped propel wireless data networks into every corner of the globe. The ongoing proliferation of 802.11-enabled products might lead one to assume that the U.S. is the leader of wireless-networking standards. But is this really the case?

Consider the recent tensions between the 802.11 community and China's emerging wireless industry. Initially, the Chinese government announced that only its version of the IEEE 802.11 standard would be allowed in China. Even though it's remarkably similar to the 802.11 specification, this WLAN standard—dubbed GB15629.11-2003—differs considerably in its security protocol.

Many felt that this decision challenged what could otherwise have been a global standard. In China, the development of 802.11 wireless networks has been slowed. On a positive note, the IEEE (standards.ieee.org/wireless) has expressed optimism that differences can be satisfactorily addressed with China.

How about the other side of the wireless-broadband-networking equation—the telecom standards? Here, some observers feel that the U.S. has already lost control of de-facto standard setting. Walter Adamson, Founder of The Digital Investor (www.digitalinvestor.com.au), believes that the U.S. has lost the standards race in two areas. The first casualty was the development of next-generation wireless broadband—the 4G and 5G technologies. The second loss was the home-networking standard.

Adamson bases his beliefs on the results of a meeting that took place at Awaji Island (off the southwest coast of Japan). With a host of government and industry representatives from Japan and Korea, this November 2003 meeting sought to form alliances in the development of future global communication standards. While China wasn't present, it was mentioned as a silent partner. Interestingly enough, Adamson was the only Caucasian in attendance with over 150 Asian delegates.

That meeting had one primary goal: to determine the best way for Asia to take the lead in setting the de-facto standards for 4G mobile communications. This category includes next-generation broadband mobile communications and home networking. According to Adamson's observations, the group seemed to exhibit a distaste for current standards development—especially the 3G standards-setting process. As he explains, "The 150 participants agreed that the benefits for society and for the economic development of the region were far too important to be held hostage to the U.S.- and European-dominated standards-setting rules."

Adamson concluded that the group's objections didn't necessarily reflect the United States' failure to lead in the evolution and adoption of these technologies. "Rather, they seemed to be the result of the failure of the official global standard-setting process to embrace the technological, consumer, and economic leadership needs of the three countries now in coalition." I believe that Adamson is correct. Do you think the U.S. is losing its power to influence global technological standards? Please share your thoughts with me at [email protected].

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