The importance of Standards in developing an effective Internet

Internet standardsIn a relatively few years an esoteric tool for researchers has become so much a part of our lives that an outage would be considered a major catastrophe.

Whether we are buying a book, voting, paying a bill or coordinating a disaster relief effort, the importance of the Internet is well understood. But for most of the world’s two billion Internet users, the mechanics behind its functioning are not.

It is quite remarkable that the technology behind the Internet turned out to be so scalable.

However, this may have been the only coincidence or accident in the development of this now ubiquitous global network-of-networks. Over the years thousands of engineers and other specialists around the world have come together in various different forums and standards development organizations to create the protocols and standards that enable the Internet to function.

In addition, given that by 2016, there will be 81 Exabytes of traffic on the Internet monthly, it’s clear that this rate of innovation will not slow.

If there had not been a set of globally agreed standards that gave, for example, a common means to connect, a common language for the exchange of data as well as a form for displaying that data, then the exponential growth in the use of the Internet would probably never have happened.

There are many organizations involved and a strong degree of cooperation binds them all.

Take for example your mobile phone. ITU-T codecs provide voice and video; ITU-R defines the radio spectrum in which it operates; IEEE provides WiFi standards; IETF, TCP/IP and HTTP; W3C, HTML and XML; just to name a few.

Mobile backhaul is primarily facilitated by optical transport networks conforming to ITU standards and ITU’s IMT Advanced specifications will make your phone at least 100 times faster than today’s 3G smart phones. Building blocks for an Internet Age is an info-graphic that charts some of ITU’s work, but it also acknowledges that ITU is an important part of a big jigsaw puzzle with many different players slotting in to provide coherence and continuity to one of the greatest engineering feats ever achieved.

ITU has led many initiatives to avoid duplication of work between standards organizations.

It convenes an annual meeting of CTOs to address this specific issue and a quadrennial Global Standards Symposium that brings together all key standards organizations to focus on better coordination. In fact, these are just two of the more high-level initiatives to ensure that the standards forming the backbone of all ICTs are developed to match the speed and efficiency of the industry they serve.

As economist, Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1937) noted: “Technology is not kind. It does not wait. It does not say please. It slams into existing systems. Often destroying them, while creating new ones”.

Many estimates suggest that 95 per cent of international traffic runs over fibre optic cable. This is easy to forget when wireless technology seems so ubiquitous. However, when just one undersea cable is compromised, vast areas can see significant degradation of service.

Defining the standards that apply to the physical infrastructure over which all data runs, is a key area of work for ITU. The vast majority of global communications systems interoperate because of optical transport standards agreed between ITU members from the private and public sectors.

For example, the key standard for synchronous data transmission over fibre-optic networks, synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) was developed within ITU’s standardization sector – ITU-T.

Wave division multiplexing (WDM) is another technology in which ITU-T standards have played a very important role. WDM increases the data-carrying capacity of an optical fibre by allowing simultaneous operation at more than one wavelength. Particular emphasis is given to global standards providing for a high-capacity (terabit) optical transport network (OTN) infrastructure.

These types of technologies, constantly pushing the boundaries of installed undersea cables and other fibre optics, are crucial in order to maximize return on investment for owners and are vital in terms of serving the increased demand for broadband services around the world.

The same goes for standards that have consistently pushed the bandwidth capacity of the copper cabling that many Internet Service Providers rely on, but which was originally installed for voice-only telephony.

Indeed, hardly anyone would be able to use this powerful resource without ITU-brokered and approved global standards for the critical access technologies of the Internet – at first with modems (V series standards) and now via broadband (G.99x series (DSL) and J series (DOCSIS)). The latest standard focusing on copper will push aggregate bit rates to an extraordinary 1 Gb/s. It’s safe to say that a very large proportion of the 600 million people that have a fixed broadband connection are connected via ITU standards.

But it’s not just in the physical domain that ITU’s standards have helped the growth of the Internet.

Video over the Internet is to a large extent facilitated by ITU-T’s Emmy award winning H.264, while the growth of e-commerce was spurred by an ITU standard for public key encryption (ITU-T X.509), and VoIP by a standard for call signaling and control (ITU-T H.323). A new video codec, ITU-T H.265, looks set to replace H.264 implementations and offers an incredible 50 per cent greater efficiency. In addition, ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) works on the frequencies required for Wi-Fi and mobile broadband.

All layers of the Internet are subject to rapid technological change, characterized by application innovation, increased subscriber rates and a new range of service providers. Key stakeholders from right across the Internet ecosystem, including public and private sector organizations, technical bodies, and civil society will continue to work collaboratively with global standards-makers like ITU to ensure coordinated and efficient development of the standards that underpin our interconnected world.

By: Toby Johnson

Toby Johnson is a communications professional with 15+ years experience in the tech space. In the UK he edited various trade magazines, also taking freelance commissions for more mainstream media. At ITU he has led a new era of outreach championing new and social media and pro-active relations. Currently, Toby heads up the media outreach, membership, academia and workshop organization for the standardization sector of ITU.



  1. You forgot to mention the ITU’s fascination and loud demand for DPI. Nothing like letting totalitarian governments know every little subversive detail going on.

    As it stands now, the ITU is promoting government surveillance and corporations charging for every byte transferred over the Internet. This Orwellian future the ITU is promoting further distances the ITU from the people of the world. I am unclear on how the ITU is supposed to be helping the people of the world safely communicate and enjoy the advantages the Internet has to offer.

    If the average person has to pay for every service provided, vs. the method used now, those services will quickly lose their appeal and usefulness. I think a quick review of the medium income level of the worlds populace shows that being charged repeatedly for every service the Internet offers is not a viable option. i.e. Changing the basic structure of how the Internet works ONLY benefits the major corporations.

    If the ITU continues on its path of pandering to authoritarian regimes, patent infested litigation and corporations that are solely interested in squeezing cash from every metric, then the ITU will loose all public support.
    When 55 members of the ITU walked out on the last meeting in Dubai, this should have been a wake up call to the ITU. Instead of taking the time to understand why so many members got up and walked out, the ITU appeared to double down on this wrong headed course.

    See here for more details:

    The ITU should be a member of the worlds populace and not the weapon of totalitarian governments and cash hungry corporations.

  2. Your comment touches on a DPI standard approved by ITU’s public-private partnership of members at last November’s World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-12) in Dubai.

    The voluntary technical standard, Recommendation ITU-T Y.2770: Requirements for Deep Packet Inspection in Next Generation Networks, was developed by ITU’s standards-making arm (ITU-T) which applies a contribution-led, consensus-based approach to standards development. Standardization work on a particular subject is initiated in response to contributions from ITU members if the membership reaches consensus on the inclusion of that subject in ITU-T’s work plan. Similarly, the standards developed as a result are only approved when ITU’s membership reaches consensus on their composition.

    The development of ITU-T Y.2770 was driven by industry players motivated by DPI’s value in supporting rising volumes of network traffic. It deals with the identification of the application used rather than the inspection of user’s content, allows measures to ensure the secrecy of correspondence, and does not allow access to users’ private information.

    You also assert that ITU is in favour of “corporations charging for every byte transferred over the Internet”. This perhaps refers to one of many never-adopted proposals put forward by ITU members during the run-up to last December’s World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT-12) in Dubai.

    WCIT-12 was the conclusion to the process of revising the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), a global treaty last updated in 1988. The proposal in question involved network operators charging content providers in line with the volume of traffic they route over network operators’ infrastructure. As it could not find consensus among the membership of ITU, it forms no part of the new ITRs.

    Finally, countries not signing the ITRs in Dubai in no way “walked out” of the conference. WCIT-12 produced a strong new treaty and its ratification is expected to follow a course similar to that taken by the previous ITRs agreed in Melbourne in 1988, with many countries carrying out further internal consultations before acceding to the treaty at a later stage.

  3. Some Countries are pushing mobile broadband as an alternative to Terrestrial based technologies. This is true for most of developing countries. Awareness has to be spread by ITU like organisations for these countries to plan properly. even fibre is being planned for only rural areas only and towns & cities are being left at the mercy of Mobile operators. Scarce spectrum is being used for these & Carbon emission is increasing due to towers & radiation hazards are there. An International/ Regional conference for developing countries could be held to educate Administrations.

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