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Brokering standards by consensus

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The growing importance of technical standards 

Communication between different parts of a system often hinges on conformity with common technical standards, often known as "compatibility standards" or "interoperability standards". These standards help specify how different technologies or products (e.g., a mobile phone and the mobile network, or a compact disc and CD player) can interact and work together successfully. While these standards are common in ICT and consumer electronics, their importance in other industry sectors is growing rapidly. 

It is hard to imagine how ICT services would function without standards that underlie mobile networks, or how TV or video-streaming services would operate without consistency between the creator, broadcast and receiver. Consumer electronics also often depend on widely used standards, such as in ITU H.265/HEVC video coding. 

Today, technical standards targeting compatibility and interoperability support digital transformation across sectors including healthcare, financial services, transportation, energy, agriculture, and smart cities. ICT standards bodies are welcoming new participants, as the growing need for "enabling technologies" necessitates specific ICT standards, either purpose-built or adapted to the requirements of various new markets. 

Advantages of technical standards 

Standards bodies, including ITU, are the primary means of enabling collaboration and cooperation to produce international standards. Standards bodies adhere to rules and procedures that promote openness and transparency, providing an environment where innovators from competing companies can come together to develop and agree on standards in the public interest. 

Technical standards can lower barriers to trade, encourage competition and innovation, facilitate compatibility and interoperability, improve cost efficiency, and promote national development. 

Specifically, they can help: 

Many standards, many developers 

Today, technical standards fall into different categories, depending on the entities responsible for their development, the degree of openness regarding participation in a standards-development process, and the degree of openness to the ability to access and implement resulting standards.  

The ICT standardization landscape is complex, characterized by numerous standards and standards-setting entities, some very focused and others broad in scope. Standards may be developed by single companies or groups of companies, formal standards-developing organizations (SDOs), and forums and consortia (quasi-formal SDOs). 

The type of entity responsible for a standard usually has implications for the status and international acceptability of that standard, particularly regarding its degree of openness. 

Formal standards-developing organizations (SDOs) 

Underlining the importance of an open, accessible standards-setting system, many countries have established or formally recognized certain national or international standards bodies, generally known as formal SDOs. 

National SDOs are usually membership-driven bodies that bring together standardization experts – often from competing companies and from governments, academia and civil society – to develop standards in response to priorities determined by public- or private-sector members. Some regional and international SDOs permit participation from private-sector entities by granting them membership, while others facilitate indirect private-sector participation via national SDOs. In the latter case, SDOs delegate to National Committees the role of representing the interests of all national stakeholders, including entities in the private sector. 

SDOs establish rules governing rights to participate in the standards-development process, consensus-based procedures for decision-making, the open availability of standards' specifications, and often also policies on patents' interaction with standards. Standards are finalized through an approval process conducted by the membership, the secretariat, or a combination of the two, most often through a consensus-based approach. 

Leading international technical SDOs includes are the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which covers almost all technical areas; the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), which focuses on electrical, electronic and related technologies; and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which focuses on ICT. 

SDOs also exist at the regional level. Europe hosts several important regional SDOs, including: the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Similar regional standards bodies are found elsewhere in the world, two examples being the Pacific Area Standards Congress (PASC) and the African Regional Organization for Standardization (ARSO). 

At the national level, most countries possess a government-recognized SDO. Although recognized by government, in most cases these SDOs are private-sector entities. The largest such bodies include the British Standards Institution (BSI), the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN), the Association Française de Normalisation (AFNOR) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI differs significantly from BSI, DIN and AFNOR in that it does not itself develop standards, but instead oversees the development of US voluntary consensus standards by standards bodies that it accredits. 

Forums and consortia or quasi-formal SDOs 

Forums, consortia and other informal industry associations are especially prevalent in the ICT industry. These organizations lie somewhere between single companies that develop proprietary standards and formal SDOs. Some organizations are established specifically to develop a single standard, while others are designed to have a long lifespan or serve a wider technology area. 

There are many active standardization consortia across the world, some national or regional in scope, some global. An inventory of standards-setting entities maintained by Andrew Updegrove currently lists over 1,100 organizations developing, promoting or supporting ICT standards. 

Consortia differ in their degree of exclusivity. Some are open to everyone interested in participating in the standards-development process – for example, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). Other types of consortia are more exclusive, restricting participation or access to standards to invitees only, holding closed meetings or only accepting members who meet certain criteria. 

Some very large, successful standards bodies fall into the 'consortium' category. These bodies are similar to formal SDOs in most respects, other than not being formally recognized by national authorities, and can hence be considered 'quasi-formal SDOs'. These organizations include the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), responsible for the Internet Protocol (IP), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the source of the standards underlying the Web. 

Core principles governing formal processes 

Over the history of standards development, several well-established principles and best practices have emerged:


The World Trade Organization (WTO) Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade also recommends the following principles to strengthen the development of international standards: 

The implementation of standards is voluntary. However, a standard's implementation can be mandated by national law or regulations, or as part of the ITU-facilitated, internationally agreed Radio Regulations. Such standards are usually developed by a formal SDO. 

ITU’s contribution to standardization

​Standardization proved an integral component of modernization and industrialization in Western countries, mainly in Europe and the Americas, over the 18th and 19th centuries. The rise of the electric telegraph gave rise to the need for international telegraphy standards. As a result of the International Telegraph Convention of 1865, the International Telegraph Union was established. The International Radio Telegraph Convention was established in 1906 and the two conventions were merged in 1932 under the renamed International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1934. 

Standards development has remained one of ITU's core activities ever since. ITU differs from other standards bodies in that it is an intergovernmental organization founded on a treaty between nation states. Its membership today includes 193 Member States and over 900 companies, universities, and international and regional organizations. The status of governments as members makes ITU unique in the ICT standardization world. Meanwhile, ITU is unique in the UN because private-sector entities can be members. 

ITU standards development is driven principally by private-sector members – industry players needing a neutral platform to come together. The ITU standardization process is driven by contributions from ITU members and subsequent consensus decisions. Conformity with ITU standards is voluntary unless mandated by national law or regulations, or as part of the ITU-facilitated, internationally agreed Radio Regulations.

A key policy, the ITU-R/ITU-T/ISO/IEC Common Patent Policy and related Guidelines, calls for intellectual property covered by ITU standards to be made available to all standards implementers on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms and conditions. The overriding objective is “that a patent embodied fully or partly in a Recommendation/deliverable must be accessible to everybody without undue constraints". To ensure transparency, this patent policy encourages early disclosure of patents that might be essential to standards already in their development stage.

For standards developed by the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R), see ITU-R Recommendations

For standards developed by the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T), see ITU-T Recommendations

To learn more about ITU venues for standards development, see the ITU study groups backgrounder. ​

Last update: July 2021​