Home | International | TC46 | FIPS 10-4 to ISO 3166 Transition: FAQs

FIPS 10-4 to ISO 3166 Transition Issues/Questions

Last updated April 23, 2009
  1. Why are we no longer using FIPS 10-4?
  2. FIPS 10-4 is not an exact match with ISO 3166 - how do we deal with this?   
  3. How does the US Government work with the ISO 3166 Maintenance Agency?
  4. Why didn't people know about this change – was it a surprise?
  5. Isn’t this transition going to cost a lot of money?
  6. What are the next steps?

  1. Why are we no longer using FIPS 10-4?

    In 1996, Congress approved Public Law 104-113 which was implemented in OMB Circular A-119. Among other things, these directed the US Government to use national and international voluntary consensus standards wherever possible in place of federal or proprietary standards. In large part, this was to enhance the ability of the US to compete in the global marketplace; it also enables wider cost sharing for standards development and maintenance. FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standard) 10-4 was an older standard that had been developed and maintained by the US Government. There have been a number of other FIPS that have been withdrawn over the last decade or so, including FIPS on computer languages (ADA, for example), calendar dates, magnetic tape, Hollerith (punch) cards, and many others. These were withdrawn in accordance with the OMB guidance and because there were other national and international voluntary consensus standards that provided the standardization needed. As of the end of 2008, almost all remaining FIPS are related to computer security and FISMA responsibilities.

  2. FIPS 10-4 is not an exact match with ISO 3166 - how do we deal with this?   

    Even though there is not an exact match between FIPS 10-4 and ISO 3166, there is a capability in place to deal with this issue. First of all, the determination of countries that will have codes included in 3166 is done by the UN. When the UN determines the status of a country, it sends information about the formal name of the country (usually from the country itself) in both English and French to the ISO 3166 Maintenance Agency. The country can ask for a specific code or will get a code assigned to them. The 3166 MA then discusses the code and makes a decision which is then reflected in a 3166 publication.

    There are some countries and/or disputed areas, about which status the US (Department of State) differs from the UN. Several years ago, the US went to the 3166 MA and asked that a group of codes be set aside for these situations so that the US could use 3166 codes without appearing to endorse a UN decision with which the US State Department disagreed. These codes were set aside and have been available for use by the US for more than five years. The process of reserving these codes is simple and quick; once the US has vetted a list of these codes, a decision on these codes by the 3166 Maintenance Agency is a simple matter. It involves polling the 3166 Committee with a decision within a few weeks. The US vetting process involves NGA vetting a list through the US Government, sending it to NISO (the National Information Standards Organization) who will handle the vetting through ANSI/NISO.

  3. How does the US Government work with the ISO 3166 Maintenance Agency?

    The US has developed the United States Standards Strategy (see http://publicaa.ansi.org/sites/apdl/Documents/Standards%20Activities/NSSC/USSS%20-%20text%20only.doc) as a public/private partnership with ANSI (the American National Standards Institute). This means that the US representative to ISO 3166 is sponsored by ANSI/NISO and can be from either the public or the private sector. Currently, the US representative is a Department of Defense employee; before she became the representative, the US was ably represented for many years by Rev. Bill Moyers from Caterpillar Tractor. The US representative to ISO 3166 coordinates with the Department of State and the staff of the Board of Geographic Names (at NGA) for ISO 3166 activities.

  4. Why didn't people know about this change – was it a surprise?

    Actually, many people knew that this change was coming. For example, both DoD and the Intelligence Community had changed the requirements for the release of controlled materials to use the ISO 3166 codes some time ago. Most international organizations and corporations, including NATO, the Post Office, the Olympics, and most libraries have been using ISO 3166 codes for more than a decade.

  5. Isn’t this transition going to cost a lot of money?

    There is always a cost for transition; however, there is also a cost for not transitioning as many systems have to be able to interface with international partners/systems. These systems have had to be kept in synch with changes to both country code standards. Now the requirement will only be for one system. In the long run this will result in significant cost savings and a reduction in risk of mistake. One federal agency estimated that this might save more than a million dollars a year by only having to use one standard.

  6. What are the next steps?

    NGA, which provides support to the Board of Geographic Names (BGN), should finish the development of a list of geographic entities for which the US needs a “reserved” code. They should then vet that list with in the US Government and especially with the other participants of the BGN. When this list is complete and vetted, it should be sent to ANSI/NISO for vetting within the standards community. When the vetting is completed, the ANSI/NISO representative will forward this list to the 3166 MA and obtain the “reserved” codes. The list of the entities and their codes will then be sent to ANSI/NISO and to BGN.

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