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date: 19 March 2018

Technology Standards in International Communication

Summary and Keywords

Technology standards are norms or requirements established by consensus and approved by a recognized body that sets uniform engineering or technical criteria. They also come in three types: reference, minimum quality, and compatibility standards. A reference standard is a material, device, or instrument whose assigned value is known relative to national standards or nationally accepted measurement systems. A minimum quality standard, meanwhile, sets criteria for quality, permitting sellers to certify a good or a service as meeting (or not) those criteria. Finally, compatibility standards set criteria for how a device works with other devices. Technology standards have always been important in the world economy, but they are becoming more so in the electronic age. Firms compete with one another for the prestige of establishing a new standard and especially technology platforms or architectures, and governments try to get standards adopted internationally that result in more local jobs and income. This is increasingly difficult as the world economy becomes more global, but that poses no deterrent. International relations scholars have adopted economist and rationalist choice approaches to standard setting in technology. They go beyond them, however, to talk about standards as part of an overall governance system or regime, especially in international affairs.

Keywords: technology standards, technical standards, reference standards, minimum quality standards, compatibility standards, national standards, world economy, standard setting


A technical standard is a norm or requirement usually established in a formal document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, which sets uniform engineering or technical criteria (International Organization for Standardization, 2001, p. 9). Three types of technical standards are reference, minimum quality, and compatibility standards. A reference standard is “a material, device, or instrument whose assigned value is known relative to national standards or nationally accepted measurement systems” (United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission). For example, all countries have an agency that sets measurement standards for time, distance, weight, etc. In the United States, the agency currently responsible for this service is the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST is the successor to the Bureau of Weights and Standards in the Department of Commerce that was itself established under the Constitution in 1789. Reference standards have been around for centuries to assure, for example, that a coin has the right amount of gold or silver and a scale that says that a cut of beef weighs a pound is properly calibrated. Markets need reference standards to reduce uncertainty about the metallic content of money and about measurable quantities of goods (Kindleberger, 1983; Spruyt, 1994).

A minimum quality standard sets criteria for quality permitting sellers to certify a good or a service as meeting (or not) those criteria. An example of this is an average fuel-efficiency standard for automobiles. A law requiring that all automobiles of a certain type must meet a given fuel-efficiency standard establishes a minimum standard for gas mileage below which the average vehicle cannot legally go. Consumers may find this useful, especially when the price of gasoline is rising.

Another example of a minimum quality standard is the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards that were negotiated at the Uruguay Round that concluded in 1994, part of the World Trade Organization that came into existence in 1995. These standards require signatories of the agreement to establish inspection systems to guarantee that their organic products are relatively free of dangerous microorganisms. SPS standards make it possible for countries to export and import these products without risking the health of consumers.

Compatibility standards set criteria for how a device works with other devices (David & Greenstein, 1990). An example of a compatibility standard is the size of batteries that go into electronic devices. If a device requires an AA size battery with 1.5 volts, then both producers and consumers can be sure that pretty much any AA battery they purchase will work with that device. For components like batteries, the compatibility standard usually includes the physical dimensions as well so that product designers can be certain that all batteries in that category will fit into the designated space. From here on, the terms “compatibility standards” and “technology standards” will be used interchangeably.

Compatibility standards can also be about “interfaces” such as connectors or ways of interacting with devices. One popular interface standard in personal computers is the universal serial bus (USB) connector that works to connect any two devices that support the USB standard. Another interface standard that most people are familiar with is the RJ11 connector used to connect a telephone to a telephone jack. Interfaces are not always physical. Computers use graphical user interfaces (GUIs), such as the icons on a Windows desktop, to make it easier for consumers to go from computer to computer without having to learn a new GUI.

An important historical example of a compatibility standard is the gauge size of railroad tracks. Two national railroads with different gauge tracks are incompatible in a particular way. At the border of the two countries with a common border but different track sizes, it will be impossible for the trains of one country to continue on into the neighboring country, so passengers and cargo will have to be unloaded, carried across the border, and reloaded on the other side to proceed. Making track sizes incompatible was sometimes justified during periods of international political instability as necessary for protecting against foreign invasions. However, when countries wished to promote free movement of goods and services, or data, across borders, they tended to move to compatible systems (Friedlander, 1995; Shapiro & Varian, 1999a, pp. 208–210).

In the area of international network infrastructures, such as the global airline network, it may be useful to have compatibility standards so that participants do not have to learn new procedures as they move across borders. For this reason, all pilots and traffic controllers around the world are required by the International Civil Aviation Organization to use English for communication purposes and to adopt a standard list of terms and commands to ease mutual understanding. This is generally justified as promoting not just economic efficiency but also passenger safety (Forster & King, 1995; Golich, 1989; Zacher, 1996).

Economists analyze standard setting in technology from two perspectives. First, they examine the relationship between the development of technology standards and the smooth operation of markets. A general assertion is that standards reduce transaction costs for everyone and therefore are collective goods (Kindleberger, 1983, p. 78). More recently, economists have focused on networks and how standards help consumers and producers benefit from network economies. Then the existence of standards permits rapid growth in the user base of a particular technology, economists hypothesize that users are likely to benefit more rapidly from what they call network economies (Gandal, 2002; Katz & Shapiro, 1985, 1994).

Secondly, economists focus on the strategic interactions among actors (generally firms and governments of nation-states) in standard setting using game theory as their guide to analysis. Actors may benefit disproportionately from the adoption of one standard rather than another, but all actors lose if no standard emerges. Thus, standard setting is analyzed as a game of coordination (Abbott & Snidal, 2001; Mattli & Büthe, 2003, pp. 9–10).

Rational choice theorists have also considered the possibility that standards can be used strategically for the advantage of a subset of actors. There may even be “standards wars”—prolonged conflicts over which standards to adopt and preserve (Shapiro & Varian, 1999a). If a standards war occurs over time, there might be a settlement analogous to a peace that occurs in a prolonged military conflict because of attrition. The parties to the dispute may become exhausted by the expense of maintaining incompatible standards, thus reducing the size of the overall market. The party that has the deepest pockets (and can bear the cost better than others) is likely to prevail (Büthe, 2013). Because international standards agreements generally have to be ratified at the national or regional level, theories of two-level or multilevel games may apply (Winn, 2009). In addition, the setting of standards creates a principal-agent relationship between the actors affected by standards and those charged with creating and enforcing the standards (Mattli & Büthe, 2005).

International relations (IR) scholars have also adopted these approaches. They go beyond them, however, to talk about standards as part of an overall governance system or regime, especially in international affairs. IR scholars, in particular, have studied this in connection with theories of governance and regime change (Abbott & Snidal, 2001; Mattli & Büthe, 2003, 2005, 2011; Spruyt, 2001).

Finally, there is the important question of the legitimacy of standards. Parties to standards agreements can question the procedures used to determine standards and contest the allegation that they are consensual. How to reform such procedures when their legitimacy is challenged is a relatively new topic for research (Brunsson, Rasche, & Seidl, 2012; Werle & Iversen, 2006). As we shall see, rising powers like China feel they have reason to contest international standards when established powers dominate the organizations that set them. Technical standards are often associated with intellectual property rights such as patents that require actors to pay license fees to the owners of those rights (Drahos & Maher, 2004). The costs associated with complying with international standards may be exorbitant for low-income countries.

There are three main ways for standards to be established:

  • market competition;

  • private standard-setting organizations; and

  • governmental imposition (David & Greenstein, 1990, p. 3).

Market Competition

Standards that emerge from market competition may do so in a variety of ways. First, there may be a dominant firm that imposes its preferred standard on everyone else. An example is the Microsoft Windows operating system that Microsoft basically imposed on users of PC-compatible computers (David & Greenstein, 1990). Another contemporary example is the format used for music that is played only on Apple iPod devices and sold only on iTunes or the iOS operating system for iPhones and iPads (Dedrick, Kramer, & Linden, 2010). This sort of imposed standard is generally not very popular, even though it reduces uncertainty in the marketplace, especially when the imposed standard is used as a barrier to entry on the part of potential competitors.

There may be a competition among a small number of major firms that results in multiple standards. For example, in the early days of the VCR, two major standards competed with one another: BetaMax (backed by Sony and Philips) and VHS (backed by everyone else). The fact that VHS eventually triumphed is seen as evidence for the general undesirability of competing standards, especially to the degree that having multiple standards creates uncertainty for consumers and hence retards market growth. The fact that VHS was technologically inferior to BetaMax shows that the winners of standards competitions are not always the most advanced technologies. Nevertheless, consumers may benefit from the competition between the multiple standards in the market as the final adoption of the VHS standard in the marketplace probably reflected consumer preferences (in this case, preference for the system that provided lower-cost players with sufficiently high-quality video images).

Another example of private standards competitions is the more recent competition between HD-DVD and Blu-ray players of high definition videos. Just as in the BetaMax/VHS competition, the market was held back initially because of consumer uncertainty; the victory of Blu-ray recently did not, as in the case of VHS, indicate that it was the superior technology but rather that both producers and consumers thought that it was the only viable choice in the long run. Toshiba, the backer of HD-DVD, had run out of money and was generating financial losses after aggressively promoting its standard.

Finally, there may be no agreement on standards because a number of important market actors believe the setting of standards is not in their interest. An underlying reason for this may be that the technology is changing rapidly, and neither producers nor consumers are willing to pay the costs of freezing the technology in order to reduce market uncertainty via standards. Often a different sort of standardization occurs during periods of rapid technological change that focuses on interfaces or what has come to be called “interoperability” (Lynch, 1993).

Private Standard-Setting Organizations

Standards may also emerge without the intervention of governments if private actors negotiate standards in private (and hence voluntary) standard-setting organizations (SSOs). An example of this in the United States is the American National Standards Institute or ANSI. The members of ANSI are individuals, private firms, government agencies, universities, and other standards organizations. Membership is voluntary. Full membership dues for private firms depend on the size of annual revenues, up to a maximum of $26,000 annually. The mission of ANSI is to “enhance both the global competitiveness of U.S. business and the U.S. quality of life by promoting and facilitating voluntary consensus standards and conformity assessment systems, and safeguarding their integrity” (ANSI, 2009). ANSI works with international private standards organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

The study of national and international nongovernmental SSOs has recently become an active area of research in both economics and political science (Chiao, Lerner, & Tirole, 2005). The privatization of the telecommunications agencies of major industrialized nations reduced the role of intergovernmental organizations in the setting of telecommunications standards and increased the important of SSOs (Genschel & Werle, 1993). Standards for the Internet were set largely in nongovernmental bodies, mainly the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), although national governments and international intergovernmental organizations intervened from time to time (Simcoe, 2007).

In recent years, a controversy has developed among legal scholars around the policies of SSOs regarding intellectual property rights. Some SSOs require their members to license patents associated with standards at royalty rates that are reasonable and nondiscriminatory (RAND); but others do not. Then patent holders can charge unreasonably high royalties, called a “patent holdup.” If done for a number of associated patents, it is called “royalty stacking” (Anton & Yao, 1995; Graham, Morton, Watson, & Healey, 2013; Lemley, 2007; Lemley & Shapiro, 2007; Sidak, 2007). Patent holdups and royalty stacking can have the effect of delaying the growth of new markets simply for the purpose of extracting payments from those who are inconvenienced.

Government-Imposed Standards

Finally, governments may impose standards on market players, although they might do so only after consulting them and/or after considerable lobbying by private actors with a stake in the outcome of governmental decisions. In the United States, a variety of agencies may be involved in standard-setting activities. A little later, we will talk about the role of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the setting of standards for digital television, but other agencies are frequently involved. The Department of Defense, for example, establishes minimum quality standards for its contractors under the military specification (MILSPEC) system. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes air and water quality standards; the Department of Education establishes standards for education under the No Child Left Behind laws; and so forth. Sometimes public agencies combine government-mandated standards, often referred to as “command-and-control” standards, with voluntary standards in order to achieve goals that would not otherwise be attainable (Kollman & Prakash, 2001).

Standards may be set at national, regional, or international levels. The European Union has a strong preference for regional standards because of the desire to have a single European market (Austin & Milner, 2001; Crane, 1979; Egan, 2001; Frenkel, 1990; Nicolaidis & Egan, 2001; Tate, 2001). The creation of NAFTA has resulted in some pressure for harmonization at least in standards across the members.

Incompatibilities can still crop up on either a national or regional basis. When they do, they may be part of a larger program of protecting national or regional firms and other stakeholders.

The ability of a particular nation-state to influence regional or international standards is one of the criteria used in assessing national power and prestige. Thus, the U.S. dominance in the setting of computer standards is perceived to be both an indicator and a result of U.S. economic power (Kim & Hart, 2002). European successes in challenging U.S. technology standards in, for example, TV broadcasting or cellular phones, are cited as evidence of Europe’s increasing power and independence from U.S. influence (Lembke, 2003). The Japanese government’s initial success in getting its standard for high definition television adopted as an international standard was seen as a sign of growing Japanese economic power (Hart, 2004). The same can be said for the adoption of an incompatible digital television standard in China (Breznitz & Murphree, 2013; Kennedy, 2006; Qu & Pulley, 2005).

Incompatible standards may be used primarily to protect national or regional interests, as was the case in the European adoption of PAL and SECAM standards for television broadcasting and equipment (Besen & Johnson, 1986; Crane, 1979). This incompatibility, of course, imposes a cost in that the incompatibility may limit exports of goods, services, and technology to other regions. Europe opted not to do this with its second-generation cellular phone standard, GSM, and with its rejection of Europe-only standards for networks and the World Wide Web (Lembke, 2003; Pelkmans, 2001).

Who Owns the Standard?

Some standards are proprietary—that is, owned—and others are not. Some standards are promulgated by public agencies, others by private firms or private standards bodies. Then there is the possibility for mixed ownership, for example, when a standard is set for technologies developed by a research consortium that has both private and public participants. Many research consortia combine private and public sources of funding. Consortia often create pools of intellectual property rights and permit members to license the technologies underlying a new standard on a more favorable basis than nonmembers (Hart, 1993).

It is possible for a proprietary standard to be openly available to all via licensing of the underlying technologies. There may be a simple application, certification, or fee system so that actors adopting the standard can advertise their compliance with the standard, even if they did not participate in the creation of the underlying technologies. Thus, even if your firm was not involved in creating the U.S. digital television standard (ATSC) you can still produce products that are ATSC compliant and advertise them as such. Similarly, you can license the technology underlying the DVD standard even though you did not participate in developing the standard or the technologies behind it. The main problem is that you will have to pay license fees to do so.

The logic of technology platforms is closely related to the above. A technology platform is a set of technologies and standards that must be understood and mastered by a firm before it can compete fully in markets related to the platform. Competition in high-technology markets often boils down to competition over creating new platforms. Some scholars call this “architectural” competition, because the large players are competing to define the architecture, the overall design, for a new technology platform (Ernst, 2005; Kim & Hart, 2002).

An example of a technology platform is the PC-compatible computer with its Microsoft Windows operating system. Another is the Apple iPhone with its iOS operating system. A third is the Android operating system for smart phones introduced by Google (Dedrick, Kramer, & Linden, 2010). Platforms are shared by millions of end users. These users gravitate toward a particular platform so that they can gain access to the equipment and applications that are compatible with the platform.

Just as there is certain amount of prestige and profit attached to being able to influence a stand-alone international standard, there is considerably more prestige and profit connected with the ability to influence technology platforms (Kim & Hart, 2002). Some patents associated with such platforms are called “standard essential patents.” It is necessary to license those patents in order to be able legally to build equipment and applications for the platform. The fees associated with those patents are, in most cases, determined entirely by the patent owners. There may be political and legal restrictions on the ability of the owners to charge whatever they like, especially if there is a possibility of anticompetitive behavior (Graham et al., 2013). This is increasingly a matter for international contestation.

Globalization and the Global Production Networks

Standards have risen in importance not just because of prestige and profit potential, but also because of the move toward a globalized world economy. The reduction in tariff and non-tariff barriers made possible by the GATT/WTO trade regime, the removal of capital controls and progressive liberalization of global capital flows, and the end of the Cold War have resulted in a more open world economy. In the globalizing world economy, firms attempt to locate parts of their value chain activities wherever the costs are low and the quality is high. So most firms have call centers and R&D centers in India, electronics manufacturing in China or elsewhere in East Asia, and engineers from the developing world working in “body shops” both at home and in foreign subsidiaries at lower wages than engineers from the industrialized world (Ernst, 2005).

The elongation of value chains that is part and parcel of contemporary globalization would be difficult in the absence of technology standards (Gereffi, 1996). In the case of the Internet, the standards that facilitate globalization are formalized in the TCP/IP family of protocols. Manufacturing is increasingly global thanks to published quality, compatibility, and interface standards that make it easier for firms to contract out components to other firms globally (Sturgeon, 2002).

The International Politics of Specific Technology Standards Competitions

In this section of the article, I would like to turn to an examination of some specific recent technology standards competitions as illustrative of some of the general points already mentioned. The ones I have chosen to include here are the following:

  • high definition television (HDTV) and digital television (DTV);

  • ISDN and the Internet;

  • cellular telephones;

  • high definition video recorders; and

  • wireless communications systems.


HDTV and DTV standards were developed and promulgated from the early 1980s on. The first country to do so was Japan. Japan’s hybrid digital-analog HDTV standard, Hi-Vision, was at first embraced in the United States, especially by the film industry, but later rejected in favor of a fully digital approach. The Europeans decided to adopt their own analog HDTV standard, HD-MAC, in the late 1980s. Shortly after the United States adopted the digital approach in 1993, the Europeans abandoned HD-MAC and moved to adopt their own, incompatible standard for digital television, DVB. The Japanese stuck with Hi-Vision for too long before switching to their incompatible digital television standard, ISBN. China adopted a fourth incompatible DTV standard, DTMB, in 2006. Thus, in the case of HDTV and DTV, no international standards consensus emerged. Instead, the result was the adoption of four incompatible regional standards (Hart, 2004; Galperin, 2007; Karamchedu, 2009; Starks, 2007).

ISDN and the Internet

Network standards competitions in the 1980s resulted in a variety of proprietary standards put forward by large mainframe computer firms like IBM, Siemens, and NCR, and efforts by the European Union to create a European standard under the ISDN banner and the so-called Open System Integration (OSI) model of networking.

All the proprietary network approaches were blown away by the huge and rapid success of the Internet and its TCP/IP family of standards. The victory of TCP/IP over ISDN/OSI took Europe by surprise but the region adapted quickly and made a relatively smooth transition. The Internet standards, unlike the DTV standards, became global standards (Hart, 2004). Incompatible standards were not able to compete.

The Internet standards were, for the most part, not proprietary. There were few barriers to adoption in the form of intellectual property or licensing fees. In addition, although there were initially problems with security and authentication (important for e-commerce) connected with the Internet, the users were happy with the lightness and interoperability of the system in comparison with its proprietary alternatives (Drezner, 2007; Genschel, 1997; Weber, 2004).

Cellular Telephones

There have been three generations of cellular telephone technology since the 1980s. The first generation was analog, the second was digital, and third was digital with Internet-like data services. Early innovators like Motorola and Ericsson dominated the first generation. Later entrants like Nokia, Samsung, and Qualcomm became influential in standard setting by the second. The United States opted for an anarchic system of competing standards in both the first and second generations, while limiting competition somewhat in the third. Europe successfully promoted a unified European standard, GSM, in the second generation, but has not been able to follow that with a major success in the third. Despite incompatible standards across firms and regions, the market for cellular phones has grown rapidly, especially in the developing world where landline telephone services are mainly provided still by monopoly providers.

Third-generation cellular phones are becoming the preferred access point for those who can afford them to the Internet, so there is considerable controversy and contestation over next-generation Internet 2.0 services like social networking and interactive mobile video (Funk, 2002, 2009; Lembke, 2003).

High Definition Video Recorders

With the rapid increase in demand for HDTV receivers, following the deployment of DTV services, there was a standards competition between two incompatible high definition video playback systems: HD-DVD and Blu-ray. HD-DVD was the child of Toshiba and its allies; Blu-ray was championed by Sony and Philips and their allies. Consumers, unable to figure out which of the two standards would prevail, delayed their purchases. Prices remained high. When a few companies made dual-standard players available, the price was too high to win over consumers. Eventually Toshiba threw in the towel, and Blu-ray emerged victorious (Sabbagh, 2008).

What is a notable difference between this case and the others was the lack of governmental intervention. Neither the European Union nor the U.S. government had much at stake and the Japanese government probably did not want to favor one Japanese firm over another. Everyone was relieved now that the competition was over, however, especially the U.S. film industry because it preferred the Blu-ray system’s copy protection and digital rights management (DRM) features.

Wireless Communications Systems

The dominant standard for local area wireless communications is Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi allows you to wirelessly connect your computer or your smartphone to the Internet whenever you buy coffee at: Starbucks, for example. Many hotels offer Wi-Fi services to clients, sometimes for free. This standard is likely to be replaced in the future by a standard that permits faster transmission of data to and from the user. The companies and countries that dominate the next generation of Wi-Fi products and services stand to gain a lot of influence and wealth globally, so the competition to define this new standard is heating up.

China imposed a national Wi-Fi standard called WAPI, short for Wireless LAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure, which addresses problems of security in wireless networks. South Korea adopted its own national standard called Wireless Internet Platform for Interoperability (WIPI). Normally these two countries would adopt standards developed elsewhere, but both are now feeling a lot stronger technologically and therefore are less willing to have new standards imposed upon them by others (Lee & Oh, 2008).

Summary and Conclusions

Technology standards have always been important in the world economy, but they are becoming more so in the electronic age. Firms compete with one another for the prestige of establishing a new standard and especially technology platforms or architectures, and governments (including regional regimes like the EU and NAFTA) try to get standards adopted internationally that result in more local jobs and income. This is increasingly difficult as the world economy becomes more global, but that does not stop the various players from trying. The economics of standards is important, but a full understanding of technology standards requires a combination of economic and political perspectives.

The challenge for IR scholars will be to add to the overall discourse on technology standards by using their competitive advantage in studying national and international political dynamics. Unlike economists, IR scholars are not centrally concerned with the efficient operation of markets. They will continue to focus on issues that are important to their own discipline, such as the international struggle for power and the evolution of international regimes and institutions. They should join the sociologists in examining the role of nongovernmental actors in standard setting, because the idea of some sociologists that the emergence of some sort of global civil society is occurring is worth investigating (Loya & Boli, 1999). They should follow the economists in their studies of the potential abuses of intellectual property rights associated with standards, particularly in the area of patent holdups and royalty stacking, because such practices may be associated with power-seeking behavior on the part of both multinational corporations and national governments. The interdisciplinary work on global production networks and architectural competition has important implications for the evolution of international politics. IR scholars and political scientists should continue to contribute to the research on open standards and the new model of engineering and competition that is associated with the open source software movement. In short, the study of technology standards must become an important part of the overall agenda of IR research.

American National Standards Institute. ANSI is a private, voluntary standards setting body headquartered in the United States.

European Telecommunications Standards Institute. ETSI is the European counterpart to ANSI.

International Electrotechnical Commission. This is an international organization that sets standards only for the electrical and electronics industries.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This is an international organization that helps to negotiate voluntary standards in, for example, manufacturing and environmental practices.

National lnstitute for Standards and Technology. NIST is the successor to the older Bureau of Weights and Standards.

“Standard,” Wikipedia. This site provides basic information about technology standards and refers to a variety of organizations and publications dealing with standards.

United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Paragraph 74.4 Definitions.” This site provides good working definitions of basic concepts.


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