Wireless Spat Shows China Won't Take Back Seat On Tech Standards

Its tech companies are growing tired of having standards handed to them de facto, so they're developing alternatives
China isn't happy to see its wireless security standard rejected by an international standards body. But don't write this off as an insider techie spat. Standards are emerging as a tense trade issue as China ramps up its IT influence.

This dispute is over the International Organization for Standardization rejecting China's encryption technology, known as WAPI, or WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure. ISO instead embraced the 802.11i encryption standard, developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and heavily backed by the likes of Intel. In response, the Standardization Administration of China last week made a testy appeal to the ISO, accusing the IEEE of conspiracy and unethical behavior. China also said it would support the WAPI approach for domestic use, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

Disagreements around standards are likely to become more common as China asserts its influence as a buyer and maker of technology, looking to cut the royalty fees its electronics manufacturers pay and give those companies any advantage that may come from homegrown standards. "China is becoming increasingly frustrated that they've been excluded from the standard-setting process," says George Koo, senior adviser at the Chinese services group of consulting firm Deloitte & Touche. "Most standards have been handed to them as a de facto." Chinese companies pay royalties when building electronics that use those standards.

Standard Setter
Where China is pushing its own standards
AVS Video compression technique aimed at providing better compression than MPEG-2 and avoiding royalties to MPEG licensors.
TD-SCDMA Technology for transmission of 3G mobile communication, championed by eight Chinese telecom companies.
IGRS An effort led by Lenovo to develop a technique to allow grouping, collaboration, and resource sharing across electronic devices. Also called China National 3C.
The 802.11i encryption standard is a security amendment to the base 802.11 standard that addresses the weaknesses in Wired Equivalent Privacy, or WEP, an encryption technology that's vulnerable to intrusion. WAPI addresses those same shortcomings. IEEE denied any wrongdoing during the selection of its standard. "It is inaccurate to characterize the working group's activities as untruthful or uncooperative," the IEEE says in a statement. The organization says its working group conducted all its activities in public forums, to which the Chinese standards body was invited.

China Won't Give Up

Unlike WAPI, the 802.11 standard is well established in the marketplace and used by most Wi-Fi-enabled devices, laptops, and PCs. It's also backed by big-name companies such as Intel, which opposed WAPI when it was proposed as an international wireless security standard. The IEEE says WAPI isn't compatible with the base 802.11 standard.

China in the past suggested it would make WAPI a mandatory national standard, but it dropped that effort under pressure from the U.S. government. If it had, companies would have had to manufacture two sets of chips: one for the Chinese market with encryption technology licensed from one of 11 Chinese companies, and the other for use in other countries.

China is pushing other standards to foster domestic companies, but it also hopes to promote them abroad. China still isn't influential enough to force its own standards on international organizations, but it won't give up. "China may retreat for a period of time in the efforts to initiate standards but will keep trying later in other areas with different approaches," says Oliver Xu, a Gartner analyst in Shanghai.

The Standardization Administration of China didn't respond to interview requests. The IEEE says it's prepared to work with China to "harmonize WAPI technology with existing IEEE and international standards." It's unclear if the SAC wants to do the same.

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