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The Standards Game

The standards process starts with a proposal and ends (hopefully) with the publication of a final document. What happens between those two stages is a lengthy -- and often complicated -- series of twists, turns and pitfalls.

May 1, 2001  

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Everyone knows about standards. Most of us can even name some — Category 5e, Ethernet, RJ-45 — and a few of the organizations that create them. But how are standards really created, by whom, and how does it work? We are going to try to answer those questions.

A standard begins with a need, or at least a perceived need. “Someone stands up before the committee and says ‘Look, I have an idea, I’ve identified a need,'” explains John Siemon, vice-president of engineering at The Siemon Co. in Watertown, CT, and chair of the Telecommunications Industry Association’s (TIA) TR-42.1 subcommittee, which develops cabling specifications for commercial buildings.

That person could be almost anyone, because membership in TIA committees is open, and their meetings are also open — for a fee — to anyone who is interested. Siemon says the TIA encourages broad participation in its standards process, though he admits that in practice equipment manufacturers dominate the committees — probably because they have a more direct interest in standards than anyone else. “It would be nice to maybe see a larger balance of the people that are installing and using these products,” Siemon says, “but in general we’re not seeing as much of that kind of participation as I would like.”


The proposal for a new standard often comes from a manufacturer. That manufacturer might already have developed a product and want to see its specifications established as a standard — or it might want to see an industry standard set up to prevent a competitor from entrenching its own product as a de facto standard.

Victor Boersma, the first chair of what is now the TR-42 committee of TIA, recalls that the idea of creating a TIA subcommittee to establish building wiring standards first arose as part of a widespread feeling in the 1980s that IBM should not dominate the emerging local-area network (LAN) business. Creating standards was a way to keep IBM’s own product line from becoming the standard.

The idea proved so popular that what Boersma started as a subcommittee of TIA’s TR-41 committee eventually became TR-42, whose standards are the TIA’s best-selling standards, says Boersma, now director of conformity assessment and market access for the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC). TR-42 itself now has nine subcommittees.

Manufacturers commonly come to standards meetings with clear ideas of the standards they want to see. The goal is usually to have the standard look as close to the manufacturer’s own product as possible. When the first cabling standard was being considered, says Boersma, “Hewlett-Packard had a system, and the fellow from HP basically dropped his system manual on the desk.”

That could make the whole process very quick and easy if only one manufacturer had an interest, but of course that is rarely the case. Others bring in their own wish lists — also built on their existing products or the work going on in their labs — and the standards subcommittee sets out to reach a compromise.

The effort does not have to become official right away. Siemon says TIA subcommittees have some latitude to pursue what they think is worthwhile. Before a proposed standard can enter the balloting process that leads to it becoming an official standard, though, the subcommittee needs project authorization from the TIA and from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

These rules have been loosened in recent months, Siemon notes. In the past, as soon as a subcommittee defined the scope of work on a proposed new standard it had to obtain project authorization before proceeding.


What authorization is needed depends on the standard. The TIA develops cabling standards for North America, but other standards bodies have an interest in the process too. ANSI oversees the work of many technical standards bodies including TIA, Siemon explains, and it adopts some of the standards those groups define as its own.

If a standard is “ANSI-track,” meaning that it will be both a TIA and an ANSI standard, the balloting process is open and is announced in ANSI publications. If it is not an ANSI-track standard, the TIA will check with ANSI to make sure it does not duplicate work being done elsewhere under the ANSI umbrella, but the final ballot is only open to TIA members. Generally, Siemon says, the standards that are not ANSI-tracked are interim standards, advisories and bulletins.

Within the TIA, subcommittees ask their parent engineering committees for project approval for new standards, and committees assign the work to the appropriate subcommittees, explains Bob Jensen, vice-chair of TR-42. For instance, the idea of a Building Automation Cabling System standard was first brought to the TR-42.1 subcommittee, which deals with commercial building cabling. The subcommittee agreed such a standard was needed, so it asked TR-42 for approval. TR-42 approved the project and assigned TR-42.1 to develop the standard. In this case, since it was an ANSI-track standard, TR-42 also sent paperwork to ANSI, which notified other standard bodies.


When a subcommittee formally begins work on a standard, it usually assigns a task group to that particular standard. Each such group has its own chairperson and an editor to oversee the drafting of the standard.

The task group gathers input, mostly through written submissions. It can take from a month to a year to prepare a draft ready to take back to the subcommittee, Jensen says. The subcommittee reviews the document, and decides whether to put it out for ballot approval or send it back to the task group for more work. If the proposal is ready for a ballot, the subcommittee assigns an editing committee to make sure it meets the requirements of the standards Style Guide, and asks the parent engineering committee to approve a committee ballot.

TIA subcommittees meet every three months. Task groups get some of their work done through special meetings, phone calls and e-mails, and detail work such as editing standards documents takes place between meetings. To keep the process open, though, all the important steps in the process must be approved at the scheduled subcommittee meetings.


The committee ballot — sometimes called the “green ballot” because of the colour of paper on which the ballots were printed before the process became mostly electronic — is the first stage of review. On this ballot, only participants in the committee responsible for the standard can vote.

A proposed standard at the committee ballot stage carries a number beginning with PN, which means Project Number. This four-digit number will remain with the standard through the balloting process, but when the draft passes its committee ballot and is ready for an industry ballot, the PN is replaced by SP, which stands for Standard Proposal. Once a standard passes its industry ballot and is published, it gets a new number unrelated to the one it carried through the development process.

There are four possible votes on a TIA standard ballot: approve, approve with comments, disapprove with comments, and no comment. There is no such thing as a simple “no” vote. Anyone who votes against a proposed standard must give reasons and explain how the standard ought to be changed to address the objection. At the committee ballot stage, 30 days are allowed for voting.

“Everybody and his dog is allowed to make comments and the committee or subcommittee or formulating group has to respond to all of the comments,” Boersma says. “Saying things like ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ won’t do, You have to give a reasoned response.”

That can be quite a job for the subcommittee chair when the proposed standard attracts a lot of interest. Building wiring standards can bring 50 or 60 comments, Boersma says. On the other hand, “some standards are very, very obscure and you’re happy if you get two.”

Nor does a proposal just need 51 per cent of the votes to pass. It is more of a consensus-building process. Informally, Siemon says, more than two-
thirds of the votes is generally considered sufficient support for a standard, but “generally the chairs that have been effective have really looked for 100 per cent agreement on the technical requirements.”

The basic procedure is to gather the results of one ballot, amend the standard to address the comments, then send the standard out for another ballot. A new ballot is required if there are technical changes, and a standard can go through several ballots before consensus is reached, Siemon says. The committee has to take care that in addressing one comment it does not make technical changes that raise new concerns.

To keep the process from dragging on too long, the TIA will sometimes limit discussion to certain portions of a proposed standard. Such a ballot, called a default ballot, deals only with the portions of the standard that are still in dispute, while the rest is considered frozen. This prevents parts of the standard, thought to have been settled, from being brought back into play and further delaying the process.


Having passed its committee ballot, a proposal must go on to an industry ballot, sometimes called the “pink ballot”. At this stage, the proposed standard gets a new designation beginning with the letters SP. At the industry ballot stage, 60 days are allowed for voting.

Essentially anyone can vote an ANSI-track standard in the industry ballot. Ballots go out to members of the relevant committee, but ANSI also publishes notices of standards that are out for ballot, with information about obtaining copies of the proposals. For standards that will not bear ANSI’s name, only TIA members vote.

The committee cannot approve a standard while comments remain outstanding. However, “sometimes you have commentors who apparently cannot be satisfied any way except by not issuing the standard,” Boersma says. The committee’s last resort is to submit to the TIA Technical Committee that it has done its best to resolve the comment and ask for permission to override the objection. “Normally, if you have done your homework and everything is kosher,” Boersma says, “the committee will give you permission to override.” However, this happens rarely.


Once a standard passes its industry ballot, it needs final approval from the TIA’s Standards Secretariat and Technical Standards Subcommittee.

TIA publishes the final standard with a designation that starts with some combination of three sets of initials — ANSI, TIA and EIA — followed by a number. Any standard developed by TIA has “TIA” in its name. If the standard is also backed by ANSI, then “ANSI” is part of the name too. The initials EIA stand for Electronic Industries Alliance. The TIA was born from the 1988 merger of the EIA’s Information and Telecommunications Technology Group with the United States Telecommunications Suppliers Association, and remains a partner in EIA. Boersma says many standards that grow out of work started under the EIA bear the joint designation TIA/EIA, as in the recently published ANSI/TIA/EIA-568-B.1 and B.2 standards for commercial building cabling.

TIA sells the final standards documents to manufacturers, installers and customers, who need the information to make sure their products or installations comply. Other standards groups may also adopt TIA standards as their own. For instance, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) has adopted several TIA/EIA standards, sometimes with minor changes.

Sometimes a standard goes on to become an international standard through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which is a group of national standards bodies. ANSI is the U.S. member of ISO, while the Canadian member is the Standards Council of Canada.

The standards process is long and complex, but the good news is that the time it takes eventually leads to standards that represent a broad consensus. The bad news, of course, is that by the time a standard is complete, it is often time to update it to reflect changes in technology. So the work of standards bodies like the TIA is never done.CS

Grant Buckler has written about information technology and telecommunications since 1980. He is now a freelance writer and editor living in Kingston, ON.

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