Standards: The Essential Cachet To The Marketplace

June 16, 2003
In the field of communications, almost everything is standardized.

In the field of communications, almost everything is standardized. If not, it is licensed, certified, registered, tested, and approved—or otherwise blessed. Just stop and think for a minute and try to name one thing not standardized. In wireless and wired applications, the FCC or National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) defines your frequencies of operation as well as a mix of technical specifications to meet.

Then, one or more standards organizations give excruciating details about how to design the product or service and the specifics of the protocols, electrical interfaces, and sometimes even the mechanical details. If that is not enough, you next have one or more hoops to jump through to meet the requirements of separate certification programs that are set up not so much to dictate standards but to ensure interoperability between different vendors' equipment supposedly designed to the same standards.

The key advantage of standards is that you know going in what you're designing. A standard provides very clear goals and objectives, but how you meet the specifications is up to you. Even with a proprietary design you have to establish some specs. Still, it's definitely easier to receive your specs on a silver platter.

Another benefit of standardization is that you can ride any current market wave associated with the standard. Standards are developed as the result of a movement in technology or customer need. By meeting the standards, you can play the market game. You also know that your equipment will work within the defined communication system and should interoperate with similar equipment from other vendors as well. While you will have competition from other companies also meeting the standards, you can get a piece of the action.

As many vendors have discovered, having your equipment meet the standards doesn't necessarily mean that it will work with the system or the products of other manufacturers. This is especially true in complex systems with many technical and operational details. It only takes a minor variation of any kind to make a product fail a compatibility test.

One solution is to form consortiums or forums to provide an independent testing and qualification organization that can certify the interoperability of equipment that claims to meet a specific standard. A good example is the Wi-Fi Alliance, which certifies wireless LAN equipment designed to IEEE 802.11 standards. Other organizations made up of companies pursuing a given technology establish an Implementation Agreement (IA) or Multi-Source Agreement (MSA) that has the weight and effectiveness of standards. Such organizations help to ensure that products do what is intended. The end user, whether an enterprise or a consumer, benefits.

But you may not get the full benefit from your own intellectual property (IP). Your proprietary design may not survive in the market against competitors that meet some standard. Then again, maybe you will get lucky. A good example is Apple, which is still viable in the PC marketplace despite the dominance of Wintel (the combination of the Windows operating system running on Intel microprocessors).

A proprietary design may enable you to dominate a market, thus making the big revenue and profit that companies seek. But in communications, you might not be able to use and benefit from your design, patents, and other IP unless you can get it into the standard. Sometimes multiple technologies become standards, but typically only one emerges as victorious. For example, the IEEE standardized Ethernet (802.3), Arcnet's Token Bus (802.4), and IBM's Token Ring (802.5) emerged early in the local-area-network (LAN) game. Arcnet is virtually gone, however, and although Token Ring is still around, it's fading fast. Ethernet survives with well over 85% of the LAN market.

On top of this, the best technology often does not become the standard. When an industry agrees that a standard is needed, companies get together and present their alternatives. The various designs are considered and through a long, competitive, contentious, and often politically ugly battle, one of the original designs, or perhaps a hybrid, emerges as the standard. In many cases, the best approach is ditched to reach a consensus. In the best case, there may be multiple standards with alternative outcomes that will permit the adoption of more than one technology.

A good example of this is the recent meeting to initiate standards for ultra wideband (UWB) under the IEEE 802.15.3a standards for personal area networks (PANs). There were 23 initial proposals presented at the first meeting of the proposed task force, and there are more to come. They range from some basic methods developed by pioneers in the field, such as Time Domain, to startup-formulated methods involving the advanced application of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing. It's anyone's guess how this one will come out, but typically it will require about two years to work through the whole process.

A MOVING TARGET Meanwhile, technological developments move on, which is the other disadvantage. New chips, methods, and other factors occur daily in this field and can outstrip the standards development process. Sometimes by the time the standards are set and ratified, they may be old technology or well on their way to becoming obsolete. Organizations like the IEEE have worked to streamline the standards process and cut the time to ratification. Progress has been made, but when the technology is complex and the market stakes high, it takes time to sort through the options, validate them, and then work through the usual political nightmares that are inevitable.

And don't forget the special interest groups (SIGs). As Tim Kober of Intel says, SIGs play a vital role in fueling industry innovation and growth. Through cooperation and compromise, SIGs create mutually beneficial industry specifications that enable differentiated compliant products. New opportunities are created for all SIG participants.

Finally, how does a company distinguish its product from all the others that meet the same standards? Perhaps the greatest challenge is designing a product that meets all specifications but also has some feature or unique characteristic that makes it stand out. Even if it is a subtle, nonvisible benefit like lower power consumption, it will make the product a go/no-go in the standardized world of communications.

THE TWO PATHS TO STANDARDS There are two basic ways that products are standardized: through an independent public standards organization, or via a SIG or forum. The first involves established organizations like the IEEE, ITU, or ANSI. These organizations have open membership, and anyone can join in the process. Their standards process, from initial idea to final specifications, is an open and public affair. If you want formal recognition that has major influence, this is the way to go. But it doesn't protect your IP or guarantee your profitability.

That's why companies resort to a closed standardization system in communications, creating the other path to standards. Companies come together under a formal contract and nondisclosure agreement to establish a consortium, alliance, forum, or SIG. This organization conducts a standards process that is only open to those willing to pay the price to join the alliance. Information is confidential and for members only. Rules are established to deal with the IP of the interested companies. The result is usually positive, as all of the involved companies meet to hash out the gory details.

Communications is essential to human endeavor. Good communications among people is tough enough without electronic barriers. The last thing we need are interoperability problems that only make matters worse. Standards solve the problem. Today it is absolutely necessary that any engineer or company dealing with communications products become actively involved in the standards process by joining the various task groups and alliances. There is clearly an overhead associated with such activity, but it will help ensure that your ideas, products, and opinions are heard. Standards work is detailed, enriching, and often frustrating, but it's ultimately a satisfying task. It's an experience that all communications engineers should have.

Here are the organizations responsible for most communications standards as well as the various consortiums and forums that exist to test, certify, promote, and educate the public about the various standards:
American National Standards Institute,
ATM Forum,
Bluetooth Special Interest Group,
DSL Forum,
Electronic Industries Association,
Federal Communications Commission,
Frame Relay Forum,
International Organization of Standards,
Internet Engineering Task Force,
International Telecommunications Union,
Instrument Society of America,
Metro Ethernet Forum,
MPLS Forum,
National Institute of Standards and Technology,
National Telecommunications and Information Administration,
Network Processing Forum,
Open Mobile Alliance,
Optical Internetworking Forum,
RPR Alliance,
Software Defined Radio Forum,
Telecommunications Industry Association,
Telcordia Technologies Inc.,
Universal Mobile Telecommunications Systems Forum,
Wi-Fi Alliance,
WiMedia Alliance,
ZigBee Alliance,
3rd Generation Partnership Project,
10 Gigabit Ethernet Alliance,
About the Author

Louis E. Frenzel

Click here to find more of Lou's articles on Electronic Design. 

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