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Engineering Wise - Standards Operating Procedure

Sat, 04/30/2011 - 8:15pm
Thomas Russell, Director of Standards for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers

Standards matter.

All of the nifty broadband products and services that are currently deployed and planned have a hidden common gene: They all conform to industry standards of one kind or another.

Anyone would be hard-pressed to name a widespread technology that doesn’t meet that definition. Most of the standards in question are “voluntary” – in terms of compliance – but the reality of interoperability as a market requirement can render that concept moot. Everything from F-connector specifications to DOCSIS has been vetted and agreed to by industry. Imagine the consumer confusion and extra costs associated if each manufacturer or service provider were to use proprietary connectors.

Thomas RussellYet standards development as an engineering function is often misunderstood and, to those outside of those activities, rarely given the credit it deserves. For some participants, it’s a specialization; for others, it’s only a part of their overall job description. It’s more than a science – it’s an art.

Participants in development are at once subject matter experts, diplomats, and occasionally country lawyers. Balancing these roles is sometimes delicate. Delegates have to act on behalf of their constituents (the companies paying for their participation), but they also have to decide where to compromise for the good of their industry.

Accredited standards development organizations (SDOs) like SCTE operate under approved procedures that control the process by providing rules on how standards development is carried out. The SCTE operates under rules approved by the American National Standards Institute, our accrediting organization. ANSI-accredited SDOs enjoy widespread acceptance of their “products,” but because the positions of all participating stakeholders must be considered, it can sometimes result in a process that takes longer to run its course. However, the end result – standards that have been thoroughly vetted by both producers and users during their creation – pay off on the investment of upfront time.

So to an organization or individual, what are the motivators to being involved? In which organizations should they expend limited resources? What do they potentially give up by participating? We’ll try to answer some of the questions here.

WHY GET INVOLVED?
Although there is usually some amount of community altruism involved, most members have real business motivations driving their participation. For some, it’s an entrée to their targeted market, or it’s to gain market advantage by being on the inside track with early access to the developing standard. Some have a proprietary technology that they wish to promote as the “industry standard”; others may want to mold emerging standards to conform to their product roadmaps. Still others gain prestige and recognition in the industry by being associated with the SDO and its members. A few participate as a defense to competition. Whatever the reason, participation from many stakeholders with different viewpoints creates robust standards that make a difference for the industry.

WHERE ARE MEMBERS’ RESOURCES BEST APPLIED?
Larger companies will have a budget, and perhaps employees dedicated to standards participation, and they usually belong to a myriad of SDOs. For smaller companies with more limited resources, it becomes more critical to participate where the most benefit to both the company and the industry will be derived. That’s not an easy decision, but it can be guided by the needs of their customer base or the activities of their competitors.

DO STANDARDS PROCESSES COMPROMISE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY?
Most SDOs require disclosure of pertinent IP so that decisions on adoption of a particular method or technology are made with the knowledge that royalties might be assessed to comply with the standard. In general, adopting patented technology into a standard has benefits, and in fact is done routinely. The reality is that in most cases, an organization gains much more than it gives by being involved.

HOW DOES A STANDARDS PROJECT REACH COMPLETION?
Usually a drafting group is set up to compose the proposed standard. Meetings, both virtual and in person, are held to discuss, amend and finalize a document that is passed on to the “consensus body,” or parent group, that officially votes on the proposed standard. In the case of the SCTE’s process, the development takes place in a drafting group under the auspices of a subcommittee such as the Interface Practices Subcommittee. How long this whole process takes depends on factors including whether or not a full draft was proposed by one of the participants or they start with a clean sheet of paper, how controversial or complex the topic is, and the available resources (i.e., people dedicated to getting it done).

WHAT’S THE ULTIMATE BENEFIT?
Ever-increasing connectivity creates the need for plug-and-play interoperability of devices and systems that only standardization can assure. Users benefit from lower costs generated by competition between vendors and a commonality of components and reasonable assurance that everything in a system works together. Standards participants gain from being part of the process by incorporating their ideas and potentially getting a jump on non-participating competitors and gaining a faster time to market. Overall, standards matter because, while invisible to many, they are actually true industry enablers.

For more information on how to get involved with the SCTE’s standards process, please go to: http://www.scte.org/standards/Standards_Home.aspx.

E-Mail: trussell@scte.org

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