On 19 April 2016 the European Commission published its Communication ‘ICT Standardisation Priorities for the Digital Single Market‘. The Communication was part of the wider ‘Digitising European Industry’ announcement on 19 April – read our blog here for full details of what was announced.

The ICT Priorities Communication thrusts into the limelight an obscure but vitally important area of policy: the setting of common technical specifications for ICT products and services, particularly those related to the ability of different devices to communicate with each other. According to the Communication, common standards that ensure interoperability between digital technologies are the foundation of an effective Digital Single Market.

The Communication identifies numerous challenges faced by the current legal framework through which technical standard setting at a European level takes place. It concedes that rising to them will require a more focused and sustained approach to standardisation by the Commission, including a greater level of political support. At stake is nothing less than the competitiveness and innovative capacity of the EU’s digital economy.

The Commission’s solution to these challenges is the adoption of a priority action plan set out in the Communication that comprises i) the identification of five priority ‘building block’ areas of the ICT sector in relation to which standardisation efforts are to be focused (5G, IoT, Cybersecurity, Cloud and Big Data); and ii) a high level political process to validate, monitor and, where necessary, adapt the list of priority areas.

Need for reform

The Communication argues that a refresh of the EU’s ICT standardisation framework is required for the following reasons: i) the increasing reliance of different sectors of the economy on rapidly changing digital technologies; ii) that the value of digital systems increasingly relies on convergence of technologies across different sectors; iii) the complexity of new technologies which is leading to a proliferation of different standards; iv) the rise in the number of standard setting bodies and organisations globally; v) that some of the EU’s competitors are focussing on standard setting in a more effective way than the EU; and vi) any overhaul of the standardisation framework needs to be carried out with one eye on ensuring that fundamental human rights are respected, notably in relation to privacy and personal data.

The Priority Areas – 5G, IoT, Cybersecurity, Cloud and Big Data

The Commission’s priority areas were selected on advice from the European Multi-stakeholders Platform on ICT Standardisation, an expert advisory group that advises the Commission in relation to ICT standardisation. A public consultation launched in September 2015 confirmed a broad consensus around the Commission’s choices. On 19 April the Commission also separately published its synopsis report on the responses to the consultation.

The Commission’s intent is that the focus on these priority areas will complement other standardisation initiatives, such as the planned Joint Initiative on European Standardisation, proposed in the ‘Upgrading the Single Market‘ Communication adopted on 28 October 2015.

The Communication sets out specific actions to be taken by the Commission in each priority area, for example in relation to the Internet of Things (IoT) the Commission will: foster an interoperable environment for the IoT including under the umbrella of the Alliance for IoT Innovation (read about our work with the AIOTI here); promote an interoperable IoT numbering space; explore options and guiding principles for trust, privacy and end-to-end security in the IoT; and promote the uptake of IoT standards in public procurement.

Leadership to deliver the ICT priorities

The Commission recognises that delivering on its goals for each of the ICT priority areas will depend on a high level commitment from all stakeholders in the standardisation process, including from the standardisation community, the EU institutions and from Member States.

To that end, and building on the existing standardisation framework, the Commission proposes the following additional measures to enhance its ability to deliver the priority areas and more generally to raise the political profile of ICT standardisation:

  • Working with the European Standardisation Organisations (CEN, Cenelec and ETSI) to devise a timetable and roadmap for each priority area.
  • Ongoing monitoring of progress and regular reporting to the Parliament and Council, to commence by 2017.
  • Greater funding of standardisation activities, including the funding of large-scale pilot projects in the priority areas.
  • Working to ensure a balanced approach to intellectual property rights (based on FRAND licensing terms) in relation to standards that provides a fair ROI for standard essential patent holders whilst giving fair access to others in the markets, in particular SMEs.
  • Exploring the setting up of new arrangements (including additional funding) to enhance the EU’s presence in international standardisation efforts relating to the priority areas.

The Communication is notable for the number of specific obligations that the Commission commits itself to undertaking. We look forward to further reporting on the Commission’s future progress in this important element of the Digital Single Market strategy.

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