First-ever federal standards strategy would make NIST’s work more relevant to industry

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A new federal standards strategy that includes specific reference to emerging technologies would strengthen U.S. global competitiveness, according to experts.

The strategy should identify technology sectors where government wants to innovate, while allowing markets to determine when they’re ready for commercialization and leave standardization to the experts, said Alissa Cooper, chief technology officer at Cisco Systems, Inc., during a House Subcommittee on Research and Technology hearing Thursday.

Standards developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology enable innovation, technology commercialization, resilient infrastructure and U.S. competitiveness. While the U.S. has had a high-level, quinquennial standards strategy for the last 20 years courtesy of the American National Standards Institute, the White House may consider crafting its own to rival the one the EU adopted in February.

“I think now is an important moment for the U.S. to assert its own strategy, in particular, because it could be valuable as a contrast to what the European Union has proposed,” Cooper said. “They’re really looking at taking much more of a government-directed approach that diminishes the role of industry.”

For standards developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to be relevant, the agency needs companies prepared to commercialize the corresponding technologies to bring them to market and use the standards to drive universal adoption, she added.

Companies jump on standards “when they can make money,” as was the case when four or five competing wireless standards ultimately gave way to Wi-Fi for long-distance communication and Bluetooth for near communication, said Andrew Updegrove, cofounder of the law firm Gesmer Updegrove L.L.P.

The EU isn’t the only competitor the U.S. should be worried about with China making “significant investments” to participate in standards setting organizations (SSOs), give the global reliance on standards, said James Olthoff, acting director of NIST.

While the Department of Commerce meant well when it added Huawei to its Entity List in 2020 — thereby restricting the Chinese-based telecom company’s access to U.S. technology produced domestically and abroad — given national security concerns, the decision had ripple effects in the standards world.

“Adding Huawei to the Entity List without a workable [standards development] exemption caused great disruption to hundreds of SSOs as they scrambled with frustration to understand what was required of them and then restructure,” Updegrove said.

In the end Huawei was free to participate in SSOs, while U.S. companies decided they would not due to compliance concerns. Some SSOs moved to Europe, when the U.S. needed to be respected and in the room, Updegrove said.

Rep. Haley Stevens, who chairs the subcommittee, expressed concern agencies tasked with advancing U.S. competitiveness like NIST lack the funding, authorities and infrastructure to do so.

The House recently passed Stevens’ NIST for the Future Act, which would increase the agency’s budget by 18% this year and double it over the next, if passed by the Senate and signed by the president.

“As it appears, NIST simply does not have the resources or the staff to be fully engaged in international standards-setting activities,” Stevens said.

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American National Standards Institute, China, Cisco, Department of Commerce (DOC), emerging technology, European Union, Huawei, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), standards
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