Reflections on the Last 15 years
In 2007, before the cratering of the global economy, I began a job with Intertek’s Global Market Access program. While job losses in the US accelerated, so did my early career. “I’ll get laid off,” I figured, “I’m an untrained newbie in a collapsing market.” But I never did. I credited this to my low salary and Intertek’s book of business. However, the truth was that manufacturers knew the headwinds and were still willing to export globally. I kept getting product certifications, and the flow never stopped. Fifteen years later, on the brink of another inflation-induced, war-torn, sanction-driven, and pandemic-fueled recession, the companies I represent are still looking ahead. They are still developing new products to introduce in new markets.
Macroeconomics aside, the process of certifying a wireless device across the globe hasn’t changed much. New regulations continuously emerge while regulatory bodies add or drop burdens and requirements. Although these details are important, the big picture remains similar, and cooperation between countries, or the emergence of regulatory blocks, remains rare. Technology is making applications easier, but we have yet to see a reduction in regulatory burdens.
For example, if we compare today’s Wi-Fi certification process in 30 major countries with the processes that were in place fifteen years ago, little has changed in terms of manufacturer requirements. (This is true of other wireless technologies as well). Even if the countries themselves have since eased or bolstered certain requirements, the average work required of a manufacturer has not evolved. For many countries, you can submit test reports prepared in support of US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or European Union (EU) approvals. But you may still need to send samples for in-country testing to obtain approval in a handful of other countries. Many still require that a local representative or importer act as the applicant. Documentation and label requirements have been consistent.
The article explores a few key aspects of international approvals to illustrate areas of increasing and decreasing difficulty, as well as areas with little change.
During my first meeting with an industrial manufacturing client, a compliance engineer asked me, “can we get ‘modular approval’ in any country?” What he meant was, “if we have eight devices that all use the same model of module, can we just certify that module in any country?” By doing this, he would be getting one certification instead of eight. In this hypothetical scenario, the module likely already had FCC, Industry Canada, and EU compliance approvals but not approval or certification in other global markets. Now, 15 years later, modular approvals are facing increasing restrictions. Let’s look at two major markets for US exporters, Brazil and Mexico.
Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones (IFT), Mexico’s telecom authority, moved to restrict modular approvals in January 2021. As a result, a manufacturer’s end-product must comply with Mexico regulations and certification requirements. The manufacturer can no longer leverage certification for the RF component or any modular approval.1,2 This generally means the manufacturer must complete testing in Mexico.
In-country testing has long been an IFT requirement for common wireless products. So, in that regard, we see continuity. The difference is that the Mexico testing laboratory now needs to test the end-product. Although the IFT does allow family groupings in some instances, the additional requirement of testing end-products can be burdensome, especially for medical or other manufacturers of expensive products.
Going back to the previous example, an industrial manufacturer may not be able to simply certify its module. But it may be able to test one model of its end units and add the other models to the certificate. Mexico’s added requirements are noteworthy but not representative of a sea-change in the global certification sphere.
The Wireless Planning & Coordination Wing (WPC) of India has moved away altogether from allowing modular certifications and is limiting the use of module test reports. Any device falling under WPC regulations that is manufactured outside India must obtain equipment type approval (ETA), or follow a self-declaration procedure, at the system or end-unit level.3 Further, my partners in India have told me the product must have its own wireless reports. You cannot seek end-unit approval while leveraging reports from its module—even if the product has its own safety and EMC reports. Many other countries still allow module wireless test reports as part of the application for the final product.
The following question has remained relevant and necessary for the past 15 years. Can a manufacturer apply for wireless approval as a foreign manufacturer/entity, or does the application need to come from a local representative in the country? Based on my experience and research, it seems the same countries that required local representatives in 2007 still require them today, with few exceptions.
I’ve seen further continuity about the question of local representation in the lack of communication between US/EU manufacturers and their overseas partners. Many foreign applicants have local offices in the countries they wish to enter. Yet I still hear that they cannot get that office to respond to queries. For instance, we need a basic form signed by the local office, and the office refuses on various grounds or wants to escalate the issue to the corporation’s legal department. In such cases, my advice to those who want to use their local offices is to coordinate with them early in the process.
I also see the opposite situation. That is, the local office is eager to help but is thinking that the product is ready for sale immediately or in the near future. They may be unaware that the product has yet to undergo conformity assessment or testing and that the country may have a lead-time of weeks or months to issue the approval, even if the testing goes according to plan.
The option to use a locally based, third-party representative remains. If a country requires local representation and the manufacturer doesn’t have one, they can use a third-party representative. The notable exception is if the country requires the local representative to also serve as the importer and/or distributor of the product. In that case, a third party cannot act as the applicant unless they are officially authorized to import the product (which is possible in some cases). Mexico has recently added this requirement, and while it has been common practice for some time in other countries, it appears as though we are trending toward increased global regulation.
In-Country Testing: The Big Picture
A bigger question than the requirements regarding local representation is whether a country requires local testing. That is, can you apply for approval or certification in a given country with existing EU or FCC reports, or do you need to send product samples to an in-country testing laboratory.
Of course, obtaining wireless certification with existing reports would be preferable for most manufacturers. In this regard, I’ve seen the burdens decrease slightly. In a few dozen non-EU countries, you can expect to send samples to mostly the same locations as you did in 2007. The exception is the increasing use of accredited foreign testing laboratories. For example, Vietnam has been allowing test reports from its curated list of accredited labs instead of requiring samples. This list of countries has grown.4
The use of mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) has also increased with regulators in other countries. Korea allows more testing in foreign labs. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) has a relatively small list of certified accreditation bodies (CABS)5, but these CABS may move to accept reports from other testing laboratories, increasing the available locations for testing if a CAB still certifies the product.
Online or Streamlined Applications
Online portals have expedited the wireless approval process in several countries. I don’t recall any clear, well-functioning online application processes for type approval back in 2007. Today, we see many countries, especially those in the Middle East, offering a clear, online path to certification. A foreign applicant can create an account, upload documents, and watch the process.
This still takes time and some knowledge of the procedure, and no one has gone to any lengths to simplify this. It is, however, a positive trend and one that I hope continues. In many situations, having a trusted agent in-country to correspond with the wireless authority is valuable or necessary, especially with language barriers. One should always check if there is an online or direct route to certification before engaging a local contact.
Documentation and Label Requirements
Perhaps no other aspect of international approvals has remained as consistent as the documentation requirements. In trying to prepare their companies in advance of a global launch, project managers may provide a checklist or discuss the required documents. The list is remarkably similar fifteen years into my time in this industry. The primary documents required are the test reports. Applicable standards are updated regularly, but the covered areas remain consistently the same, that is, EMC, safety, and wireless, as well as specific absorption rate (SAR), in some cases.
Other documents, user manuals, specifications sheets, ISO certificates, and photos are a must. Block diagrams and schematics are still needed in some countries, and no one likes providing them today any more than they did in 2007. I can’t blame them. At the time of this writing, I can’t think of any major items added to or removed from a hypothetical certification checklist over the past 15 years. (If you can think of one, let me know.)
Labeling remains a key concern for globally certified products. Today, countries still have label requirements, and logos, images, or certification numbers can fill up a small or even medium device. Manufacturers may not like the aesthetics of a certification mark even if their unit has room. Countries often exempt especially small products from logo requirements, but for anything bigger, even something the size of a baseball, you may be stuck putting logos on the product depending on which countries you want to enter.
Some countries don’t care if you have other certifications
and your label space is filling up, taking the position that their requirements are as important as those of other countries. We are seeing advances in the increased acceptance of e-labeling and countries allowing labeling on the user manual or packaging. But, until we enter a label-free world, it is crucial to understand requirements in advance of your product launch.
US Testing Laboratories: Increased Commodification
To obtain international wireless approvals, you first need test reports for the product itself—a process that is becoming increasingly commoditized. Typically, manufacturers cover FCC and EU-required testing and then turn their attention to the rest of the globe. And many manufacturers submit FCC or EU-required test reports, along with other documents, to dozens of countries for type approval.
I’ve seen some manufacturers become indifferent to the test laboratory they use. Many test engineers, when asked which testing laboratory they want to work with, will often remark that they have no preference since all are pretty much the same. (This attitude seems especially prevalent in the San Francisco Bay area, which has a high concentration of testing labs and a high turnover of test engineers.)
The increased commodification of testing services offers benefits and drawbacks. Manufacturers open to using any lab often receive multiple quotes for testing and/or certification. This can drive down costs and improve timing or testing laboratory availability. The downside is that a given laboratory may not be familiar with the product’s technical specifications and operation or with the customer’s compliance planning.
There are, of course, exceptions to this trend. Some manufacturers maintain strong ties with third-party test laboratories and will only use that testing lab. The stated reason for sticking with a given lab is typically “they provide good service, response time, and understand our product line.” Ultimately, product testing and certification remains a service business. Just as with a restaurant or any other business offering services to customers, the principle is still the same: treat your customers well and they will keep coming back.
What Do the Next 15 Years Hold?
While the relative continuity of the past 15 years suggests things may stay the same for the foreseeable future, it is, of course, impossible to predict what will actually happen. What I can say with certainty is that we will need to be on alert for country-specific changes. Recent revisions to the regulatory approval process like those in Mexico and other countries have major impacts on a company’s compliance plan, exports, or in-country distribution. Even changes to label requirements may be a headache if you do not anticipate them.
Will we see increased cooperation or recognition of compliance between countries? Brexit, sanctions, and rising nationalist movements indicate the opposite may be in store. I may not be working in international wireless certifications at the next 15-year mark in 2037, but I’m betting they will still be required across the globe, and our jobs as manufacturers and compliance professionals are going to look the same.