What is a Telecommunications Standard?

Telecommunications standards (wire and wireless) are the underlying "laws" that govern the emerging Global Information Highway and the existing telephone system. Telecommunications networks in every country in the world utilize formal telecommunications standards to physically interwork. Without public agreements and the telecommunications standards that codify such agreements, wide-area voice and data communications would not be possible.

Communications Standards Review (CSR) reports on formal telecommunications standards work-in-progress (US and International) covering multimedia and wireline access technology standards.

It is often difficult to tell whether a standards committee is a formal one. In the US, formal standards committees are accredited by American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The accreditation process is complex but offers some specific values to potential users and implementers of standards:

Today there are some non-accredited standards groups (e.g., ATM Forum and Frame Relay Forum) that develop their work and then introduce it into formal standards groups. This can be a good balance. And very rarely, as in the case of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), informal standards work is so desirable that it becomes acknowledged as formal by force of use. However, the IETF now has ties to formal standards organizations. But the rest of the non-accredited standards groups are often attempting to drape a manufacturer's proprietary approach in finer garb. The proprietary approach may be desirable (e.g., Microsoft MAPI), but it cannot meet the four values of formal standards work outlined above.

At CSR, the term "telecommunications standard body" refers to formal authorized telecommunications standardization bodies.

For further background on standards and standardization bodies, papers, reviews and presentations by Ken Krechmer offer a broader view of this area. For further detail on the range of different standards development organizations, see Recommendations for the GIH: A Matter of Standards, winning paper for 1995 World Standards Day, sponsored by the Society of Engineering Standards. For further detail on the classes of standards, see Technical Standards: Foundations for the Future, the feature article in the March 1996 issue of Standard View, from the ACM.

Overview of Formal Telecommunications Standards Organizations


The International Telecommunications Union is a treaty organization of the United Nations which has as members each country on the planet. It is also the oldest telecommunications standards organization, dating back to 1865. It recently adopted the name ITU as the name of its standards work, replacing the name International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee (in French the acronym was CCITT). As an organization of governments, the ITU is also the most formal of the formal telecommunications standards organizations.

The standards work in the ITU is divided into two sections, ITU-Telecommunications (ITU-T) and ITU-Radiocommunications (ITU-R). Each section is organized into Study Groups. Study Groups are divided in Working Parties, and then further divided into Questions. The work in a Question is led by a Rapporteur (French word meaning facilitator), and the working meetings are termed Rapporteur meetings.


The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) was formed in 1988 by the Commission of the European Communities to assist the process of technical harmonization in telecommunications, broadcasting and office information technology. CSR reports on ETSI's:


Telecommunications industry Association (TIA) is the formal organization responsible for the standards of the telecommunications equipment that connects to the US telecommunications network. The TIA is closely aligned with the Electronic Industries Association, an organization tracing its origin back to 1944.

To complete the picture of the lower layer formal telecommunications standards committees in the USA, Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) Committee T1 is the formal organization responsible for the telecommunications network standards.

In summary, TIA develops the US national standards for the equipment that connects to the telecommunications network and ATIS T1 develops the US national telecommunications standards for the network to which the equipment attaches. Work from both these organizations is passed, via the US State Department (as the representative of the USA) to the ITU where world-wide telecommunications standards are defined (by bringing together national standards work from many countries).

(c) Copyright 2001-2002. Communications Standards Review.

This page was last updated April 3, 2003.

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