Why Standards Development Requires a Longer View

Article By : David Boswarthick, ETSI

ETSI's technology radar report advocates a futuristic view for developing technology standards.

Standards may have traditionally evolved in tandem with technological developments and evolution, but with the pace changing so rapidly, it’s important for standards bodies to have a more futuristic view. This article aims to explain why, and also presents our view of the top technology trends on our radar for the next decade.

If we take some time to browse through the relatively brief history of modern technology advancements, one repeated theme we see over the decades is the essential role of global standards or rather the negative impact of a lack of applicable standards that have been responsible for impeding the progression of certain essential technologies. Incidents of this kind have been occurring for over a century – with the “Current War” of the 1880s between Edison and Tesla being one that resonates with technologists, both past and present.

David Boswarthick - ETSI
David Boswarthick

An example of standards fragmentation that has affected most people’s lives, and one which still affects us today, is the sockets/mains voltages that are used by different countries. The sockets found in the United States, the U.K., France and Australia are all different from one another, thereby requiring travellers to carry adaptors.

For some time, there was a similar standards fragmentation within the early mobile communications sector. The initial analog handsets would not even work on a national level. This was partially resolved as technology evolved towards digital communications, but even digital handsets still could not be used in other countries. The reason was the distinct frequency bands and RF protocols adopted in different regions.

Today we have handsets and assorted devices that will work internationally through incorporation of multiple technologies. That is made possible by the development of globally applicable mobile standards developed and shared between manufacturers and network operators.

Looking back at history, and taking stock of the present will enable key lessons to be applied to ensure that the pervasiveness of all future technology innovations is not held back, and their benefits can be shared globally.

Global specs ideal, but not always the case

If you want something to work simply and reliably across the globe, then a well-defined single standard has to be established. Equipment subsequently built to comply to that standard will have heightened appeal from a user perspective, as it offers much greater convenience and performance.

From the manufacturer’s standpoint it is also highly advantageous since it allows greater economies of scale. More markets can be addressed by the same product, thereby bringing down innovation and manufacturing costs. In addition, global standards facilitate deployment of new features and functionality – as engineering teams may also implement standardized functions on their products that can then be deployed to multiple markets and customers.

Though there are times where proprietary standards have been successful and proved their worth, it is clear that forging universal, non-proprietary standards is a much better approach. This enables buy-in from a much wider community and means  there will be interoperability between the solutions from different vendors of all sizes. Having standards in place also helps to instill user confidence, mitigating to a certain extent the anxieties about data privacy, safety and the like.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one domain where the global applicability and the massive diversity and number of connections will benefit from globally developed standards. There are, for instance, various machine-to-machine (M2M) platforms already installed to support smart city services and inter-city connectivity initiatives. Currently municipal governments tend to procure one solution from a particular service provider, and then a separate one from a totally different provider to deal with another function.

Such silo-oriented arrangements limit the scope of what can be achieved, as the all-important contextual data remains in isolated usage areas. There is no real opportunity for cross-platform sharing of data. A greater level of communication between these M2M platforms, however, would allow for other functions to be included and numerous new possibilities to be explored.

Community consensus

This is why the defining of standards and construction of frameworks that can assure interoperability are so attractive, as they will nurture greater ingenuity of new IoT services that can be applied across multiple platforms and shared among cities and indeed nations.

Since its founding in the late 1980s, ETSI has supported engineering advancements throughout the entire ICT domain, with influence all across Europe and beyond. ETSI continues to provide the standards-based foundations upon which digital transformation relies – so that regulatory requirements are met and government policies respected. With the acceleration of the digital transformation, the methods ETSI employs are being enhanced to become more future-aware.

What has always been essential to ETSI is that our activities are member-driven – with all ideas coming from the members themselves. There are more than 900 members – including commercial companies, government organizations and research institutes.

Standards must represent the consensus view of the community involved. We make certain that all the relevant members, of all sizes, have the opportunity to voice their opinions. Each ETSI member has the right to present ideas and conversely to comment and even reject the ideas of others. It is then a matter of finding the best standards solution that will benefit all of the participating members and eventually make their way to products and services in the global marketplace.

This bottom-up approach allows ETSI members to address challenges with relatively short timeframes (usually just a couple of years ahead) and normally entail defining work items that will lead to the release of a standard. It is paramount that all work programs are coordinated to ensure that when a new scope of work is put together it doesn’t compete with the activities of another technical group within ETSI, or standards activities being conducted outside the organization.

If so, it then becomes necessary to examine the reasons, while encouraging collaboration with the global standardization ecosystem. Equally important is inclusion of all relevant companies involved. That requires continuous communications, education and recruitment of new members, frequently via interaction with industry forums. We also encourage existing ETSI members to enlist their partners and customers, or at least raise awareness of the relevant standards under development.

Whilst the bottom-up, member driven approach remains valid, ETSI is embracing a more futuristic approach to its existing methodology. It is vital that we identify current and future technology mega-trends that might emerge in the coming years, and understand their potential and the opportunity for future standards.

By doing so, ETSI will be better positioned to develop the standards needed to support relevant future technology trends.

An 18-month project undertaken by ETSI has culminated in the publishing of our first technology study. The objective is to identify which technology mega-trends will have the greatest impact on society over the next decade. Based on these megatrends, we can determine emerging use cases, obstacles stakeholders will need to overcome and how ETSI can assist.

10 mega-trends

The ETSI Technology Radar (ETR) project highlights our gradual transition to a proactive organization.

Technology radar trends ETSI
Technology mega-trends from the ETSI Technology Radar. (Source: ETSI)

ETSI focuses on 10 megatrends, although the research work has identified dozens more. As well as the evolution of 5G and the IoT, the document includes artificial intelligence, eXtended reality (XR), autonomous network infrastructure, cybersecurity, blockchain, autonomous systems, dynamic data and quantum computing.

For each of these trends an impact assessment and potential timeframes have been established, along with recommendations on how current ETSI activities may evolve to respond to the future needs of our members.

As the applicability of technology evolves, ETSI’s membership is also expanding. We are now receiving significant input from organizations representing multiple vertical industries such as automotive, maritime, health and manufacturing. For example, when considering blockchain technology, we see the need to include the financial industry. As 5G evolves, we include input from automotive manufacturers looking to enable autonomous driving.

The increasing digitization of multiple industries means new technologies will emerge much faster. ETSI must therefore provide greater visibility into the underlying dynamics that drive these developments while ensuring the necessary standards will be ready at the right time to take the products and services to market.

The 10 mega-trends described by ETSI’s technology radar cover key areas where we expect significant activity over the coming decade. From these, it is also possible that sub-trends will emerge in the same time period or sooner. Therefore, our findings will be updated periodically to reflect technological advances that influence standards.

ETSI’s technology radar is available here.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

David Boswarthick is director of new technologies at ETSI.


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