This paper is the property of Standards Engineering Society. It was submitted to the World Standards Day paper competition for 1995, and won first place. It is reprinted here with permission.

Recommendations for the Global Information Highway:

A Matter of Standards

by Ken Krechmer
Communications Standards Review

757 Greer Road
Palo Alto, CA USA 94303-3024
+1 650 856-8836
[email protected]

The Global Information Highway (GIH) is society's vision for the telecommunications systems that may one day provide nearly unbounded personal communications. To make this vision practical, telecommunications standards which define compatibility within the GIH and at the access points are necessary. These telecommunications standards become a form of laws, not governmental or physical, but related to both. These laws control the ways to access and implement the GIH. A variety of standards organizations define these telecommunications standards.

The laws of the GIH are too important to society to be created only in the technical fora of standards organizations. Wider participation in the telecommunications standards making process is developing, and telecommunications standards organizations are expanding their focus to help implement society's new vision. But much more remains to be done to create a broad consensus that could further define and carry this early vision of the GIH forward to actuality.

What is a Standard?

Today, standards are used for many purposes. Standards define a specific aspect of a device such as its external color or the size of lead in a pencil or type faces or computer operating systems. Device standards are very helpful in the manufacturing and distribution process, but are not necessarily crucial for function: if every fire engine was a different color of red, the fire would still be extinguished. If every pencil had a different diameter of lead, the scribe could still take notes. If every computer had a different operating system and printed with a different type font, their applications would still be useful.

Standards that directly support telecommunications such as the mechanical dimensions of a connector, the electrical properties of the signals that pass through the connector, or the protocols that maintain order in the data stream through the connector are critical to telecommunications. For telecommunications to occur, telecommunications standards must define aspects of two devices, the transmitter and the receiver. Without a transmitter and its compatible receiver, communications does not occur. Telecommunications standards define compatibility, not sameness. This makes telecommunications standards distinct from device standards.

History of Telecommunications Standards

The term standard was first used in 1138 AD in the description of the "Battle of the Standard" because "it was there that valor took its stand to conquer or die" 1. Thus the earliest use of the term is as a flag or conspicuous object indicating a rallying point. Later the term evolved to indicate a physical definition often called "the king's standard."

A telecommunications standard is derived from this concept of a defined rallying point. With less heraldic flair and far greater complexity, telecommunications standards define a point of connection in any public telecommunications system. But the concept of who defines the standard has changed completely since 1138.

In 1138 AD, a king was the only creator of a standard. Following societal progression, kings gave way to governments. In communications, standards-creating evolved to where multiple governments needed to agree to create a standard. In 1865, the desire for compatible telegraph operation engendered the formation of the International Telegraph Union, the predecessor of the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) of today. In 1885, only twenty years after its creation, the ITU made the first formal provisions for international telephony. Thus the ITU, an organization of many governments, created the world's first intergovernmental telecommunications standards: the laws that governed the interconnection of the telegraph and telephone systems.

Today, standards are created nationally by governments and companies working together in national telecommunications standards authorities (e.g., ATIS, TIA, TTC, ETSI 2). The work from these organizations is then brought to the ITU, which is still a governmental-based telecommunications standards authority. Through the auspices of the ITU, governments and companies together create international standards to make possible international radio and telecommunications.

The Rise of Membership-Based Standards Authorities

Companies such as IBM and later the newly divested AT&T dominated North American telecommunications standards development in the 1980's with their significant technical expertise and capital for both meeting attendance and research work. To balance the power of these larger commercial organizations in the United States, various trade associations have sponsored formal standards-making authorities such as IEEE 802, TIA TR and ATIS T1 committees to create national telecommunications standards. Outside of North America, the Public Telephone and Telegraph (PTT) organizations of various governments have been able to balance the resources of the larger companies in TTC (Japan), ETSI (Europe), and in other regional telecommunications authorities. These different regional telecommunications authorities have developed into a second tier of telecommunications standards authorities that also bring their standards to the ITU.

A standards authority may be distinguished from other standards organizations in two ways:

Standards authorities, then, create non-overlapping telecommunications standards ("Recommendations" in the ITU), based on industry or government consensus.

The Growth of Other Standards Fora

Telecommunications standards are being created by more and more varied standards organizations. Today at least five different types of organizations are creating telecommunications standards.

Type: Controlled by: standards organizations
ITU Governmental standards Governments authority
ATIS, TIA, ETSI, TTC Membership standards Trade associations 3 authority
ATM Forum, Independent fora with Members ties to standards Frame Relay Forum authorities
Internet Engineering Independent fora Technical users Task Force
PCCA, DSVD 4 Company fora Companies

New telecommunications standards fora are often formed to provide closer connection to user requirements, or to develop a specific technology or market segment. Rapidly emerging technologies such as wireless, cable and satellite require new telecommunications standards. Development engineers engaged in the creation of these new communications technologies often lack an understanding of existing standards organizations, by type, function or importance. There is currently no formal scholastic curriculum teaching the importance of standards. Development engineers are focused on development goals. Sometimes the developmental engineers are of the opinion that standards authorities move too slowly. Because of all this, development engineers often take the approach of standardizing a new telecommunications technology by forming a new, independent standards organization.

Independent standards fora, unlike standards authorities, are not controlled to minimize overlapping and incompatible efforts. The proliferation of independent standards organizations that are not connected to existing standards authorities has been cause for some concern as there is a tendency for multiple independent standards organizations to create overlapping and - worse - incompatible standards. The concern is that two different pieces of telecommunications equipment are not able to communicate without supporting the exact same telecommunications standards. However, system and technology effects can make possible, or even desirable, support of certain incompatible telecommunications standards without impeding telecommunications.

Technology's Effect on Overlapping Standards

Telecommunications standards are a mix of definitions derived from physical laws and agreements reached by groups of people. Open System Interconnect (OSI) is a reference model defined in ITU-T Recommendation X.200 for the processes of a communication system. It comprises seven layers, ranging from the lowest layer (one) which is the physical (e.g., wire or fiber), to the highest layer (seven) which is the application. Applications may be user-related or associated with the information system.

At the lower layers of the OSI model, definitions based on physical laws dominate the standards. The lower layers of the OSI model deal with the dimensions of the connector, the electrical signals, and the organization of the data stream transmitted. This work is closely based on physical laws.

At the higher layers of the OSI model, the issues change. At higher layers, agreements reached by groups of people dominate the standards. Because of the inherent nature of the communications at each layer, formal (i.e., non-overlapping) telecommunications standards are less important at higher layers of the OSI model. OSI layers 5 and 6 deal with issues such as how the data is represented and procedures that support restart and/or data recovery in the event of a communications failure. These issues, while critical to some communications systems, are not critical to the operation of all communications systems. They are application-dependent. For this reason, it may be desirable to support multiple overlapping and incompatible higher layer telecommunications standards for similar functions but differing applications.

The technology that makes practical the implementation of multiple overlapping telecommunications standards is the use of programmable processors. Fixed function telecommunications systems and equipment demand fixed standards, e.g., leased line modem communications over fixed facilities to a host computer. Currently, the lowest layers of the OSI model require fixed standards. These layers define the mechanical dimensions of connectors, the electrical characteristics of signals over wire, and start-up signals. But the protocols that define the data stream through the connector no longer must be fixed. Software-controlled telecommunications equipment can change the protocol as desired, decreasing the need for higher layer fixed telecommunications standards. Examples of such operation include multiple protocol stack routers, V.42 error control procedures in modems. 5, and support for multiple voice digitization and compression algorithms in telephone network equipment.

The continuing expansion of the power of microprocessors and digital signal processors will soon make possible telecommunications equipment which is more completely software-controlled. In wireless telecommunications standards, this effect will be even more pronounced once tunable radio frequency sections are controlled by microprocessors, and are able to select operating ranges over a wide bandwidth. Wireless telecommunications equipment which is controlled completely by software is possible because there is no physical connector to standardize.

When the microprocessor and digital signal processor programs may be loaded into telecommunications equipment under control of a user or managing system, the telecommunications equipment is described as having an open architecture. Open architecture telecommunications makes practical multiple overlapping telecommunications standards. In open architecture systems, the lack of a common standard does not prevent telecommunications. With multiple standards for similar functions, the users can choose which standard to load into their equipment, and they may switch back and forth as needed. The equipment may be able to do such switching automatically, based on the signals received from the equipment at the remote end during start-up.

Some would argue that overlapping telecommunications standards are a waste of resources even if they can be made to work. But overlapping standards can be a means to foster competition between technology approaches and/or between companies. Overlapping telecommunications standards may also allow a consensus in the standards organization when it is not possible to achieve consensus within a technical debate. Finally, the declining cost of processors and memory within the equipment itself allows the support of similar but different telecommunications standards at very little additional cost.

The GIH is the Backbone of the Personal Communications Revolution

Until recently, world-wide telecommunications was offered with little choice of service or provider. Western Union provided telegraph service. AT&T, Regional Bell Operating Companies or the Public Telephone and Telegraph in countries outside of North America provided telephone service. This lack of competition created a slowly evolving communications system that lagged behind society's needs. For example, consider the difficulty ordering ISDN service in North America, a PPP connection 6 in Europe, or a telephone in many other parts of the world. Where the public telecommunications service is well run and well funded, it is barely acceptable. And where it is poorly run and/or poorly funded, it can be a significant impediment to regional economic success.

In the 1980's through the mid 1990's, the personal computer revolution has had major effects on society. It has decreased the tyranny of hierarchical organization on computer users. In North America, the growth in small businesses and the flattening of the management structures of larger organizations was made possible by the increased use of personal computers.

The personal communications revolution of the 1990's describes the external view of society's vision for the Global Information Highway. The personal communications revolution will also have major impact on society. Personal communications will do much more than flatten the hierarchical telecommunications structures devised in the early Twentieth Century. It will change the society we live in just as the telegraph (real-time point-to-point data) and the telephone (real-time point-to-point voice and data) did previously. Personal communications will support real-time or delayed communications, point-to-point and multipoint communications, for voice, image and/or data.

The Internet demonstrates that a world-wide telecommunications network based on lower OSI layer telecommunications standards 7 can support as many applications as users can imagine. And the higher layer OSI standards need only be those accepted by the users of the Internet. This demonstrated capability of the Internet is one promise of the Global Information Highway - a network with applications limited only by the imagination. Once the lower layer practicalities of required telecommunications standards are in place, each user should be free to create or choose the type of applications to use. Much like a modern highway, the Global Information Highway should allow the passage of an amazing number of different vehicles, with little or no change needed in any telecommunications standard.

Conclusions: New Directions for Standards Work

The world's telecommunications standardization organizations are creating the telecommunications standards that make possible the GIH. They are also taking part in a discourse to help direct the personal communications revolution. Two major areas must be considered:

  1. The changes required in the operation of the standards organizations themselves to prepare for further work on the GIH.
  2. How the GIH will exist in the societies it serves.
Some of the more vital issues regarding the changes needed in the operation of standards organizations are:

Some of the key issues in the discussion on how the GIH will exist in the societies it serves are:

Finally, the most exciting and yet most disconcerting prospect of the personal communications revolution is that personal communications over the Global Information Highway will lead the societal structure. The attendant changes to the many structures in society personal, business and government will not be well understood until after they have occurred. Personal communications over the GIH creates new possibilities for individual freedom and will require new awareness of individual responsibilities.

Wise guidance during this period of societal change would be very beneficial. Several hundred years ago, when new freedoms and responsibilities were also being discussed as the United States emerged as a new country, the leaders decided to create a charter to provide guidance. The ITU, as a UN organization chartered to support telecommunications, could be the logical organization to undertake the coordination of the work to write the "Declaration of Telecommunications Independence". Such a charter could go far to direct the vision of the Global Information Highway.


1 This was reported by a contemporary writer of the period Richard of Hexham. The quote is from a Latin couplet written on the occasion.
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2 ATIS: Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, TIA: Telecommunications Industry Association, both in North America; TTC: Telecommunications Technology Council in Japan; ETSI: European Telecommunications Standards Institute.
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3 ETSI and TTC also exhibit governmental direction.
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4 PCCA: Portable Computer Communications Association; DSVD: Digital Simultaneous Voice and Data Forum.
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5 V.42 supports two different error control procedures, LAPM (Link Access Protocol for Modems) and MNP (Microcom Networking Protocol), which was originally a proprietary solution.
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6 PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol) is a popular mechanism used to access the Internet.
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7 The protocols of the Internet are associated with OSI layers 3 and 4 where end-to-end communications is supported.
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Ken Krechmer
Communications Standards Review
757 Greer Road
Palo Alto, California 94303-3024 USA

VOICE: +1 650 856-8836
e-mail: [email protected]

This page was last updated March 9, 1996.

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