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On The Right Path: India's First Foray into Technology Standardisation Is A Welcome Move

By: Arjun Gargeyas

News18.com

Last Updated: December 07, 2022, 15:53 IST

New Delhi, India

Strategic or critical technologies, like 5G and AI, are those for which attention from the highest levels of the state is required to secure national welfare against the interstate competition. (Representational image/Shutterstock)

Strategic or critical technologies, like 5G and AI, are those for which attention from the highest levels of the state is required to secure national welfare against the interstate competition. (Representational image/Shutterstock)

The recent draft document of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) puts the spotlight on the critical issue

The concept of standardisation in technology, especially strategic or critical technologies, involves regulating the technical field. Strategic or critical technologies, like 5G and AI, are those for which attention from the highest levels of the state is required to secure national welfare against the interstate competition. A technical standard serves as a means for governance in a wide range of technologies and their applications. This remains the foremost idea behind setting technical standards. However, recent developments like states using these technical standards as potential geopolitical tools have added a new dimension to the process of technical standard-setting.

Though ‘regulation’ is an overarching term used for government control, standards strike a similar chord for the private sector. Private companies (including the ones supported by states), look to create global frameworks (such as the LTE, which serves as the standard for wireless broadband communication in mobile phones) for advancing breakthroughs in critical, interoperable technologies. This helps companies improve their market access. Standards then serve as a form of interoperability between the technological advancements made by different entities in the market.

The political push behind standardisation

Considerable investment is required in developing new technologies, such as AI or 5G. Most of these technological advancements have been spearheaded by private companies. In some cases, these companies have enjoyed state support, with some of the funds provided by the state itself, as in the case of China and its telecom giants. Generally, vast amounts of money would have been infused into the system. Therefore, it is in these actors’ interests to leverage the most from any innovation in the technical fields. An international technology standard helps to gain an economic and technological advantage over competitors, forcing the rest to follow a particular way of designing the technology.

However, in recent times, there has been a steady increase in government participation. States are now openly advocating for adopting specific standards as the global ones that would eventually benefit the state itself. A company headquartered in a particular state and owning a global standard in critical technology can influence specific global technology supply chain areas. A state’s ability to obtain technological self-sufficiency in a particular domain is a basis for using international standards to its advantage.

The push by governments in lobbying for a suitable technical standard has effectively made international technology standards a tool of statecraft.

1. Economic impact: The primary goal of influencing the standard-setting process in any specific technology is to reap economic benefits by controlling the global governance mechanism in the field. A technical standard can give the specific company and the state (if it has a role to play in the standard-setting process) intellectual property rights of the specific features or applications related to the technology. Other major technology giants would have to get licences from whoever is setting the standard to use the particular technology and for any further technological innovation in the field. This would make them the forerunners in the field, with all other competitors playing catch-up to their level of innovation.

This can create a chain reaction regarding how it affects the global technology landscape. The concentration of power due to setting the standard can create a market monopoly for the specific technology. There is also a possibility of creating a bottleneck in the global supply chains for the specific technology.

This would mean that the entire process of setting an international technology standard can become a quid pro quo between states, private companies, and international standards organisations to leverage the economic benefits on offer.

2. Technological impact: A technology standard provides the specific private entity with a first-mover advantage. The future advancements and technological growth concerning the specific technology would be driven by the entity that has set the standards in the field. This makes it more difficult for other companies to gain the freedom to pursue their own research and development without first adhering to the standards set.

The pace of innovation, along with the improvement in the quality of technology, rests with the entity controlling the standards process. Technological growth in the specific sector can be subjected to getting patent approvals and licences from the entity setting the standard. This can significantly affect how the technology ecosystem operates across the globe.

A geopolitical contestation for standard-setting can risk putting the brakes on the growth of potentially groundbreaking technology. This can also result in technological power blocs pursuing their own technical developments to wriggle out of a standard’s constraints.

India’s push begins

The recent draft document, Standards National Action Plan (SNAP), by the national standards body, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), elucidated the intention of the body to bring the process of standardising emerging technologies such as AI, Quantum, 5G and others under its ambit. This is the first time the BIS has spoken about the need for developing standards for emerging technologies and the importance of the process itself. While this is a welcome move, there needs to be a strategy in place to drive India’s ambitions in the realm.

These principles must guide India’s involvement in the international technical standards sphere:

1. Scientific progress and technological innovation must be the driving force for playing a role in setting technical standards. With greater innovation, Indian domestic private sector companies can compete for setting global standards in certain areas of technology which would, in turn, foster progress in the field.

2. Focus on technologies requiring interoperability and integration with the global technology ecosystem. The emphasis on India’s involvement in standard-setting must be given to certain strategic technologies that need interoperability to facilitate the growth and development of the domestic sector and increase geopolitical influence.

3. Balancing the economic and national interests of using certain technologies. India must focus on the areas to set technical standards that would provide a good economic return and protect the nation’s strategic interests simultaneously.

4. A platform for effective policymaking and regulation. Technical standards developed by India in specific technologies should serve as a base for local policymakers to formulate specific policies to regulate and improve the growth of these sectors in the country.

The recent BIS announcement ensured that the right path had been taken in a domain that has generally not been a forte for the country. Now, it’s necessary to formulate and adopt a strategy for India to make a mark in the field itself.

Arjun Gargeyas is an IIC-UChicago Fellow and a Consultant at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Government of India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:December 07, 2022, 15:53 IST
last updated:December 07, 2022, 15:53 IST
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