- Societies and economies depend on respect for common sets of norms, concepts and meanings – in other words, standards. Standards serve a wide range of purposes and they function in almost every technology and product we use and every process that readies products for consumption.
- Collaboration among market competitors in the development of standards creates efficiencies enjoyed by all market players. Standards can help open up global markets and help companies achieve economies of scale that ultimately result in lower production costs and, in turn, lower prices for consumers.
- Technical standards supporting compatibility and interoperability – already familiar in consumer electronics and information and communication technologies (ICTs) – are increasingly needed to support digital transformation in areas such as healthcare, financial services, transportation, energy and agriculture, as well as in the development of smart cities.
- The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) develops international technical standards known as ITU Recommendations. ITU is known for its longstanding commitment to the development of
"open standards". The inclusive ITU standardization process aims to ensure that all voices are heard and that resulting standards have the consensus-derived support of the diverse, globally representative
- Standards differ from regulations insofar as conformity with standards is voluntary. Conformity with standards remains voluntary unless mandated by national law or regulations, or as part of the ITU-facilitated, internationally agreed Radio Regulations.
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:
- Promote interoperability and compatibility between (1) different devices (2) different services and technologies (3) different protocols and (4) different markets, or between these categories, integrated via different devices.
- Establish requirements for the performance of products and services, service quality and infrastructure performance, where compliance may also be proven through conformity assessment certification.
- Address technical issues or market problems (including market externalities, e.g. such as greenhouse gas emissions and e-waste), by engaging top industry experts to debate and develop unified and quality solutions to major issues.
- Help organize a market and its operations, e.g. through the allocation of agreed frequencies for certain types of services and/or equipment.
- Attract new consumers, boost existing consumer confidence and bolster sales through increased connectivity, the use of known benchmarks, performance and certification.
- Help educate and build capacity, including on some aspects of market entry, as it is possible for new entrants to study and learn from available standards.
- Catalyze widespread adoption of ICT products and services through network effects that result from the growth of markets of interoperable solutions and economies of scale.
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:
Consensus: An inclusive standards-development process where all views are taken into account and the final composition of standards is agreed by relevant stakeholders.
Transparency: Making information available as to the proposal, development and approval of a technical standard, in the interests of enabling informed, equitable participation by all stakeholders. Transparency also implies the early disclosure of standards-essential patents.
Balance: Stakeholders' interests should be allowed equal weight in the standards-development process, and a standards body's participation and funding mechanism should help ensure that no specific interest dominates the process.
Due process: Stakeholders should be able to, on an equal footing, express a position and its basis, have that position considered and appeal an outcome. Due process ensures an equitable standards-development process.
Openness: The standards-development process should be open to participation by all materially affected interests.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade also recommends the following principles to strengthen the development of international standards:
Impartiality: All countries should be afforded equal opportunity to influence or participate in the international standards-development process.
Effectiveness and relevance: An effective international standards process usually responds to relevant demands for technical standards driven by technological advances, as well as regulatory and market needs.
Coherence: Cooperation and coordination among international SDOs is essential to avoid duplication of standardization work or conflicting standards.
Development dimension: International standards should reflect the needs of all the world's regions and measures should be taken to encourage developing countries' participation in the international standards-development process.
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.