Mar 28, 2022 - Technology

Another potential casualty of Ukraine war: global tech standards

Illustration of scissors cutting cords connected to various computers
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The invasion of Ukraine is adding heat to a long-simmering battle for control of global standards bodies, a rivalry that has pitted the U.S. and Europe against Russia and China.

Why it matters: Global standards ensure that things like smartphones and laptops — and even the internet itself — work across borders.

"Standard bodies are essential to ensure interoperability which is critical to achieving 'economies of scale' and technology reach the masses," wireless consultant Chetan Sharma told Axios.

  • "Geopolitical tensions have a real prospect of splintering the Internet and the wireless industry and the emergence of completely decoupled supply chains and ecosystems around the world," Sharma said.

The big picture: Advancing global standards is also a key domestic priority, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel told Axios. “If we have learned anything from our experience rolling out 5G, it’s that wireless policy matters for economic ​growth and national security. "

Driving the news: Tensions were high ahead of Russia's invasion, as evidenced by the high-stakes battle over who will be the next head of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the telecommunications agency of the UN.

  • The U.S. has been backing Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who has more than 28 years experience at the ITU, and would be the first female secretary-general of the ITU, as well as the first U.S. leader since the 1960s.
  • Others have lined up behind Russia's Rashid Ismailov, who previously worked as a vice minister of the Russian government and Huawei, as well as Nokia and Ericsson.
  • At an ITU standards meeting last month, a majority of countries voted to exclude Russians from leadership (vice chair and chair) of all standards-setting committees. (Yes, but: That doesn't directly impact Rashid Ismailov's candidacy for secretary-general of the ITU.)

Between the lines: The West has dominated contributions as well as the roadmap of key internet and telecom industry bodies over the last four decades, Sharma said.

  • In recent years, though, China has seen how leadership in standards-setting can translate into market success and has been actively working to get voting and chair positions on various standards committees.

The standards for 5G and basic internet protocols are now set in stone, Sharma said, but the battle is underway to influence the standards of 6G.

  • The US, for example, recently created the Next G Alliance, while China has has made proposals to replace today's TCP/IP internet protocol with a more centralized "New IP."
  • Western governments worry that could give authoritarian regimes more control over Internet traffic in their countries.

"It is important that we work with our partner nations and use our collective leverage to shape how communications networks develop and ensure that new technologies honor democratic principles and human rights," Rosenworcel said. "When we lock arms with other like-minded nations, we are stronger.”

Yes, but: Different standards need not fracture global telecommunications as long as there are pathways to interoperability, says David Gross, a former ambassador for international communications policy and partner at Wiley Rein.

  • By the same token, common standards may not be enough to preserve a global Internet — since there are other means by which countries are already limiting access.

A splintering of either standards or policies could raise the cost of providing internet service, thus slowing the growth of the Internet among the three billion people who lack sufficient access, Gross said.

  • "If you have global standards it lowers the cost of equipment, all things being equal, so that billions more people can be connected," Gross said.

What's next: The ITU secretary-general election is scheduled for early fall, in a secret ballot with each of 193 member countries getting a single vote at a conference in Bucharest.

  • While it stands to reason that Russia's invasion could hurt the country's candidate, supporters of Bogdan-Martin say it is too soon to declare victory.
Go deeper