U.S. gov't voices opposition to China's WLAN standard

Three senior U.S. government officials this week weighed in on the controversy surrounding China's implementation of a national standard for WLANs (wireless LANs) with a letter to senior Chinese officials that described the move as a barrier against international trade, a U.S. trade group said Thursday.

The letter to Chinese Vice Premiers Wu Yi and Zeng Peiyan, which was signed by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, expressed concern over China's implementation of a mandatory standard for WLAN technologies and said the move created a dangerous precedent for using standards as a barrier to international trade, according to the U.S. Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), which issued a statement welcoming the move.

The letter will bring a measure of additional diplomatic pressure on China to negotiate a compromise over the issue, said Glyn Truscott, a consultant at market analyst BDA China Ltd. in Beijing. "It's turning up the heat a little bit," he said.

The controversy over WLAN standards began last year with China's adoption of a national standard for WLANs. The Chinese standard, called GB15629.11-2003, is very similar to the IEEE 802.11 standard, commonly known as Wireless Fidelity or Wi-Fi, but it uses a different security protocol, called WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI). While the standard took effect on Dec. 1 last year, the compliance deadline for some products has been pushed back until June 1.

Chinese and foreign companies that sell WLAN equipment in China must ensure that their products comply with the Chinese standard by that date. However, industry executives have warned that a separate standard for WLAN equipment sold in China could divide the wireless networking market.

"We believe that mandatory implementation of the WAPI protocols would unnecessarily fracture the world market for WLAN products," Paul Nikolich, chairman of the IEEE 802 Local and Metropolitan Area Network Standards Committee, wrote in a letter dated Nov. 23 to Li Zhonghai, chairman of the Standardization Administration of China, and Wang Xudong, China's minister of information industry.

The Chinese WLAN standard has also caused controversy for provisions that require foreign companies to work with Chinese partners. Foreign companies are required to license WAPI through coproduction agreements with one of 24 Chinese companies that have been granted the rights by the Chinese government to license the technology. The U.S. Information Technology Office (USITO), a trade group, has said this provision unfairly forces foreign companies to grant their Chinese coproduction partners access to their technology.

Looking ahead, BDA's Truscott expects Chinese officials to yield on some of the provisions related to the implementation of the standard before the June 1 compliance deadline.

"I don't think anyone believes the Chinese WLAN standard will be implemented to the letter on June 1. I don't think WAPI will disappear entirely. It's going to be a compromise," Truscott said.

Networking equipment vendors have trod cautiously around the issue of China's WLAN standard, with most companies saying only that they are studying the matter.

Nevertheless, the matter is drawing the attention of top industry executives. Pat Gelsinger, Intel Corp.'s chief technology officer, was scheduled to arrive in Beijing on Thursday to discuss several technology matters, including WAPI, with Chinese officials.

The issue has also drawn the attention of U.S. officials, who have voiced their concerns over the standard's implementation.

"China is turning to special standards designed to limit foreign participation in key sectors," Zoellick said in an address to the Asia Society on Feb. 25, according to a copy of his speech. "For example, China's mandatory new encryption standard for wireless networking products would make China the only WTO member to introduce such a mandate for consumer products - a restriction compounded by granting domestic companies exclusive control over the technology."

Members of the U.S. Congress have also expressed concern over the implementation of China's WLAN standard and have pushed officials in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to become actively involved in the matter.

Representative Philip Crane (Republican, Illinois), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Trade; Representative Charles Rangel (Democrat, New York), ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Senator Max Baucus (Democrat, Montana), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, asked Zoellick to become personally involved in the issue and to raise the matter with his Chinese counterpart, ITI said.

In addition, Representatives Crane and Rangel, and Senators Craig Thomas (Republican, Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Subcommittee on International Trade, and Gordon Smith (Republican, Oregon) sent a letter to Yang Jiechi, China's ambassador to the U.S., urging the Chinese government to work with the U.S. on a "mutually acceptable resolution" of the matter, ITI said.

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