Political Research Exchange

International Technical Standards Development as Internet Governance – The Case of Wireless Internet Communication

Decision Making
Seamus Simpson
University of Salford
Seamus Simpson
University of Salford

Demand for use of the airwaves to undertake Internet based communication in all its forms is high and growing. This, however, sits juxtaposed against the reality of spectrum as a scarce international communication resource. An historical feature of the system has been an often uneasy co-existence between different actors wishing to occupy airwave capacity for communications purposes. Resolution of this has often played out in classic inter-governmental environments, such as the International Telecommunication Union. However, and by contrast, one current manifestation of co-existence and its tensions concerns privately-based efforts by mobile communications players, through technical standards development work, to create the conditions that will allow them to occupy spectrum space utilised historically by WiFi communications providers underpinned by technical standards developed by this community. Both sets of interests act as mechanisms on expert decision-making for wireless Internet communications services within SDOs.

International technical standards development, thus conducted in private international organisational contexts, is developing as a form of governance for the future shape of wireless Internet communication. The paper focuses on two standards: the 802.11 standard for WiFi produced within the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE); and the LTE-LAA standard for wireless broadband, developed within the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). The paper shows how the cases of 802.11 and LTE-LAA provide evidence of a number of key features of international regulatory governance of technical standards for access to the wireless Internet. First, there are distinct differences in the participation ‘cultures’ of 3GPP and IEEE 802 committees, with significant public interest implications. Second, though each standard was developed in private organisational settings, EU-US public regulatory bodies have played important background roles, in this case the US Federal Communications Commission and the European Telecommunication Standards Institute. Third, despite these characteristic distinctions between 802.11 and LTE-LAA, the paper also provides evidence of how the wireless communication international standards field is characterised by overlapping and ‘messy’ private self-regulatory governance where involved private actors have stakes in both sectors of concern: mobile broadband communication and WiFi. Despite - and paradoxically because of - this, resolution of technical ‘gridlocks’ and the securing of compromise solutions to co-existence standards problems are emerging.

As such, the Paper provides evidence of state and private interest mechanisms affecting SDO decision-making in an under-researched aspect of the broad governance of the mobile Internet, through which a growing quantity of knowledge communication will increasingly take place.
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