Digital Regulation Platform

Technical standards for upcoming technologies



The widespread adoption of wireless technologies at a global scale depends on robust consensus over technical standards for spectrum management. Technical standards are agreed upon through discussions at different international and regional organizations, as well as standards development organizations (SDOs). For example, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) addresses radio aspects in the Radiocommunication Sector and core aspects of the different technologies in the Standardization Sector. Another example, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is a group that publishes the specifications for mobile technologies. Regulators need to be mindful of the work done in the SDOs in order to better anticipate and prepare for new developments and that could require changes in their spectrum frameworks. International standardization provides several benefits for the efficient use of spectrum:

The role of the ITU in standardization

The ITU, a specialized agency of the United Nations, serves as a forum for international coordination on telecommunication issues. Its areas of work are broken down into three sectors:

ITU-T and ITU-R are the sectors most directly involved in standardization efforts. They are responsible for developing and approving the technical standards that allow for spectrum harmonization and interoperability of devices and communication networks around the world.

The ITU process of standards development is contribution-led and consensus-based. The work is divided into various study groups focused on specific issues. The study groups are comprised of representatives from public and private entities. The study groups produce reports on their areas of focus, which are elevated based on consensus to become ITU Recommendations. This multistakeholder process is intended to ensure proper representation for all stakeholders in the global technology community.

The work of ITU-T is organized by the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA), which is held every four years. In the intervening years, the work of the study groups is managed by the Telecommunication Standardization Advisory Group. ITU-R is responsible for providing global recommendations on frequency allocations in order to promote efficiency and minimize harmful interference.

In addition to developing standards for new technologies, the ITU regularly reviews and revises existing standards. ITU-T publishes its most recent recommendations on its public website for the general public. Recently revised recommendations include “Network limits for time synchronization in packet networks with full timing support from the network,” “Time and phase synchronization aspects of telecommunication networks,” and “Security requirements and framework for narrowband Internet of things.”[1]

Importance of engagement with SDOs and affiliated forums

While the ITU is a key player in the adoption of technical standards, several other organizations help bringing stakeholders together throughout the process. Regional standards organizations also play an important role in standards development.

The European Telecommunication Standards Institute (ETSI) is an independent, not-for-profit standardization body that works to ensure interoperability and promote standardized testing procedures across the European region. Its standards aim to increase the safety and reliability of electronic devices and equipment in the European Union. Regional SDOs such as ETSI serve as a critical intermediary between national governments, corporations, and higher-level standardization organizations.

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is a global forum that brings together regional technical standards organizations, to develop reports and specifications that inform technical standards for telecommunications. Members of 3GPP are companies in the telecommunication sector. Through meetings and the outcomes of issue-focused working groups, 3GPP provides technical standards to support the backwards and forwards compatibility of telecommunication equipment. 3GPP was instrumental in setting the technical standards to support the deployment of 3G technology, and is actively involved in current efforts to continue the development of standards for 5G.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the premier technical professional organization in electrical and electronics engineering with its origins in the first applications of electricity for communications. The IEEE was formed in 1963 to support the increasing prevalence of television, radar, transistors, and computers.

The IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) is an organization within IEEE that develops global standards in a broad range of industries, including: power and energy, consumer technology and consumer electronics, biomedical and health care, learning technology, information technology and robotics, telecommunication and home automation, transportation, nanotechnology, information assurance, and many more.

The IEEE develops its standards through drafts produced by working groups, which are then voted on among members (IEEE 2020). In addition to developing technical standards, IEEE hosts meetings, training, and events to inform members of new developments and foster consensus-building. Some of the organization’s recent initiatives in the field of telecommunications include new standards for Wi-Fi, e-health applications, wearable sensors, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Examples of standardization efforts


In 2017, the ITU released its first recommendations for the technical standards for IMT-2020 mobile technologies (ITU 2017). These standards refer to the development of the radio aspects of the fifth generation (5G) mobile networks, as they are expected to be completed in 2020. The technical requirements for IMT-2020 address metrics including download/upload peak data rates, latency, mobility, and energy efficiency. The adoption of technical standards for 5G is an iterative process that involves two major stakeholders: governmental organizations and private sector actors. The ITU process also relies on other SDOs.

For 5G, the ITU has released its preliminary list of minimum requirements for equipment to reach the threshold of IMT-2020 compliance. As private companies continue to experiment and develop new technologies, organizations like 3GPP continue to develop new releases of the 5G standards, which are a key component for the ITU process. The ITU will then consider and incorporate those findings into a set of technical standards that will be adopted at the global level.

Limiting radiation exposure

Guidelines that limit human exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) are an important aspect of international technical standards. The advance of new technologies, especially with the deployment of 5G networks, is driving the densification of telecommunications networks. More and more small cells are being deployed, supporting high-capacity networks in small high-density areas. Additionally, previous editions of standards for the calculation of maximum acceptable limits, which are often referenced in national regulations, did not include frequency ranges for mmWave bands.

In order to address this situation, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has updated its guidelines on limiting exposure to EMF for the protection of humans exposed to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF) in the range 100 kHz to 300 GHz (ICNIRP 2020). As of June 2020, no countries have formally adopted the new guidelines yet, though most countries around the world, and nearly all of Asia, Europe, and South America, adopted the 1998 guidelines, incorporating them into national EMF regulations (GSMA 2019).

Some countries implement limits stricter than those in the ICNIRP guidelines, when incorporating them into the national regulatory framework. As noted by an ITU study, until 2022 up to 63 per cent of mobile data traffic demands would not be served in countries and regions where EMF limits are significantly stricter than those defined in the ICNIRP guidelines. This emphasizes the need for EMF exposure limits be harmonized worldwide (ITU 2019). Regulators should take the ICNIRP guidelines into consideration and update their national regulatory frameworks to address the limits when using new technologies, such as 5G and small cells.


GSMA. 2019. EMF Policy. August 1, 2019.

ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection). 2020. “Guidelines for Limiting Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (100 kHz to 300 GHz).” Health Physics 118(5): 483-524.

ITU (International Telecommunication Union). 2017. Minimum Requirements Related to Technical Performance for IMT-2020 Radio Interface(s). Report ITU-R SM.2410-1. Geneva: ITU.

ITU (International Telecommunication Union). 2019. The Impact of RF-EMF Exposure Limits Stricter Than the ICNIRP or IEEE Guidelines on 4G and 5G Mobile Network Deployment. Recommendation ITU-T K. Series Supplement 14. Geneva: ITU.

  1. ITU-R recommendations can be found at: