Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Pressing Global Standards for Internet Protocols

Posted on | July 14, 2023 | No Comments

Developing new standards that would allow computers to connect and exchange information was central to the growth of international data networks. Computers and telecommunications networks are routinized codes and procedures constituted and shaped technologically by economic, engineering, and political decisions. Telecommunications requires agreement about the practices of interconnection, the interaction protocols, and the technical standards needed to couple disparate nodes.

This post looks at the importance of standards development as the Internet emerged. Several powerful contenders developed competing designs before TCP/IP eventually emerged as the global solution. Standards sometimes emerge out of functionality, sometimes out of cooperation, and often out of pure economic power. Each of these conditions was present in the fight to develop telecommunications equipment for international data communications during the early 1970s and into the 1980s.

Standards allow different types of equipment to work together. Choices of standards involve the exclusion of some specifications and the inclusion of others. Standards create competitive advantages for companies. Ultimately, these standards determine whose equipment will be used and whose will either be scrapped or never get off the design board. This situation is, even more, the case when they bridge national boundaries where the protocols and equipment have to be harmonized for effective technical communications.

Users (usually international corporations), international coordinating bodies, and computer equipment manufacturers were all starting to react to the new economic conditions of the 1970s. The movement to floating foreign exchange rates and the increased demand for ICT were especially problematic. Banks and other financial institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) were also very keen to develop data solutions to expand their scope over wider market areas, speed up “back office” data processing services, and provide new services.

Meanwhile, the ITU began soliciting the positions of its member nations and associated corporations regarding their plans to develop data communications and possible joint solutions. Perhaps most importantly, IBM’s Systems Network Architecture (SNA), a proprietary network, had the force of the monolithic computer corporation behind it. SNA was a potential de facto standard for international data communications because of the company’s overwhelming market share in computers.

Several other companies came out with proprietary networks as well during the mid-1970s. Burroughs, Honeywell, and Xerox all drew on ARPANET technology, but designed their network to work with the computers that only they manufactured.[1] As electronic money and other desired services emerged worldwide, these three stakeholders (users, ITU, computer OEMs) attempted to develop the conduits for world’s new wealth.

International organizations were also key to the standards development in the arena of international data communications. The ITU and the OSI (International Organization for Standardization) initiated international public standards on behalf of their member states and telecommunications agencies. The ITU’s Consultative Committee on International Telegraphy and Telephony (CCITT) was responsible for coordinating computer communication standards and policies among its member Post, Telephone, and Telegraphy (PTT) organizations. This committee produced “Recommendations” for standardization, which usually were accepted readily by its member nations.[2] As early as 1973, the ITU started to develop its X-series of telecommunications protocols for data packet transfer (X indicated data communications in the CCITT’s taxonomy).

Another important standards body is the International Organization for Standards (ISO). The ISO was formed in 1946 to coordinate standards in a wide range of industries. In this case, they represented primarily the telecommunications and computer equipment manufacturers. ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, represented the US.

Controversy emerged in October 1974 and revolved around IBM’s SNA network, which the Canadian PTT had taken issue with. The Trans-Canada Telephone System (TCTS) wanted to produce and promote its own packet-switching network that it called Datapac. It had been developing its own protocols and was concerned that IBM would develop monopolistic control over the data communications market if allowed to continue to build its own transborder private networks. Although most computers connected at the time were IBM, the TCTS wanted circuitry that would allow other types of computers to use the network.

Both sides came to a “standoff” in mid 1975 as IBM wanted the PTT to use its SNA standards and the carrier tried to persuade IBM to conform to Canada’s requirements. The International Telecommunications Union attempted to resolve the situation by forming an ad hoc group to come up with universal standards for connecting “public” networks. Britain, Canada and France along with BBN spin-off Telenet from the US started to work on what was to become the X.25 data networking standard.

The ITU’s CCITT, who represented the interests of the PTT telecommunications carriers, proposed X.25 and X.75 standards out of a sense of mutual interest among its members in retaining their monopoly positions. US representatives, including the US Defense Communications Agency were pushing the new TCP/IP protocols developed by ARPANET because of its inherent network and management advantages for computer operators. Packet-switching broke up information and repackaged it in individual packets of bits that needed to be passed though the telecommunications circuit to the intended destination. TCP gave data processing managers more control because it was responsible for initiating and setting up the connection between hosts.

In order for this to work, all the packets must arrived safely and be placed in the proper order. In order to get reliable information a data checking procedure needs to catch packets that are lost or damaged. TCP placed this responsibility at the computer host while X.25 placed it within the network, and thus under the control of network provider. The US pushed hard for the TCP/IP standard in the CCITT proceedings but were refused by the PTTs who had other plans.[1]

Tensions increased due to a critical timeframe. The CCITT wanted to specify a protocol by 1976 as it met only every four years to vote on new standards. They had to work quickly in order to meet and vote on the standards in the 1976 CCITT plenary that was coming together in September. Otherwise they would have to wait until 1980.

The X.25 standards were developed and examined throughout the summer of 1976 and approved by the CCITT members in September. The hastily contrived protocol was approved over the objections of US representatives who wanted TCP/IP institutionalized. The PTTs and other carriers argued that TCP/IP was unproven and requiring its implementation on all the hosts they would serve was unreasonable. Given ARPANET hosts’ difficulty implementing TCP/IP by 1983, their concerns had substance. X.25 and another standard, X.75, put PTTs in a dominant position regarding datacom, despite the robustness of computer innovations, and the continuing call by corporations for better service.

The ARPANET’s packet-switching techniques made it into the commercial world with the help of the X-series of protocols defined by the ITU in conjunction with some former ARPANET employees. A store-and-forward technology rooted in telegraphy, it passed data packets over a special network to find the quickest route to its destination. What was needed was an interface to connect the corporation or research institute’s computer to the network.

The X.25 protocol was created to provide the connection from the computer to the data network. At the user’s firm, “dumb” terminals, word processors, mainframes, and minicomputers (known in the vernacular as DTE or Data Terminal Equipment) could be connected to the X.25 interface equipment with technology called PADs (Packet Assemblers/Dissamblers). The conversion of data from the external device to the X.25 network was transparent to the terminal and would not effect the message. An enterprise could build its own network by installing a number of switching computers connected by high-speed lines (usually 56k up to the late 1980s).

X.25 connected these specially designed computers to the data network. The network could also be set up by a separate company or government organization to provide data networking services to customers. In many cases a hybrid network could be set up combining private facilities with connections to a public-switched data network.[4]

Developed primarily by Larry Roberts from ARPA, who later went to work with Telenet’s value-added networks, X.25 was a compromise that provided basic data communications for transnational users while keeping the carriers in charge. The standard was eagerly anticipated by the national PTTs who were beginning to realize the importance of data communications and the danger of allowing computer manufacturers to monopolize the standards process by developing proprietary networks. What was surprising though, was the endorsement of X.25 by the transnational banks and other major users of computer communications. As Schiller explained:

  • What is unusual is that U.S. transnational corporations, in the face of European intransigence, seem to have endorsed the X.25 standard. In a matter of a few months, Manufacturers Hanover, Chase Manhattan, and Bank of America announced their support for X.25, the U.S. Federal Reserve bruited the idea of acceptance, and the Federal Government endorsed an X.25-based interim standard for its National Communications System. Bank of America, which on a busy day passes $20 billion in assets through its worldwide network “cannot stall its expansion planning until IBM gives its blessing to a de facto international standard,” claims one report. Yet even more unusual, large users’ demands found their mark even over the interests of IBM, with its tremendous market share of the world’s computer base. In summer, 1981, IBM announced its decision to support the X.25 standard within the United States.[5]

Telenet subsequently filed an application with the FCC to extend its domestic value-added services internationally using the X.25 standard and a number of PTTs such as France’s Transpac, Japan’s DDX, and the British Post Office’s PSS also converted to the new standard. Computer equipment manufacturers were forced to develop equipment for the new standard. This was not universally criticized, as the standards provided a potentially large audience for new equipment.

Although the X-series did not resolve all of the issues for transnational data networking users, it did provide a significant crack in the limitations on international data communications and provided a system that worked well enough for the computers of the time. Corporate users as well as the PTTs were temporary placated. A number of privately owned network service providers such as Cybernet and Tymnet used the new protocols as did new publicly-owned networks such as Uninet, Euronet, and Nordic Data Network.

In another attempt to preclude US dominance in networking technology, the British Standards Institute proposed to the ISO in 1977 that the global data communications infrastructure needed a standard architecture. The move was controversial because of the recent work and subsequent unhappiness over X.25. The next year, members party to the International Standards Organization (ISO), namely Japan, France, the US, Britain, and Canada set out to create a new set of standards they called Open Systems Interconnection or OSI using generic components which many different equipment manufacturers could offer. Most equipment for telecommunications networks was built by national electronics manufacturers for domestic markets, but the internationalization of communications require a different approach because multiple countries need to be connected and that required compatibility. Work on ISO was done primarily by Honeywell Information Systems, who actually drew heavily on IBM’s SNA (Systems Network Architecture). The layered model was initally favored by the EU that was suspicious of the predominant US protocols.

Libicki describes the process:

  • “The OSI reference model breaks down the problem of data communications into seven layers; this division, in theory, is simple and clean, as show in Figure 4. An application sends data to the application layer, which formats them; to the presentation layer, which specifies byte conversion (e.g. ASCII, byte-ordered integers); to the session layer, which sets up the parameters for dialogue, to the transport layer, which puts sequence numbers on and wraps checksums around packets; to the network layer, which adds addressing and handling information; to the data-link layer, which adds bytes to ensure hop-to-hop integrity and media access; to the physical layer, which translates bits into electrical (or photonic) signals that flow out the wire. The receiver unwraps the message in reverse order, translating the signals into bits, taking the right bits off the network and retaining packets correctly addressed, ensuring message reliability and correct sequencing , establishing dialogue, reading the bytes correctly as characters, numbers, or whatever, and placing formatted bytes into the application. This wrapping and unwrapping process can be considered a flow and the successive attachment and detachment of headers. Each layer in the sender listens only to the layer above it and talks only to the one immediately below it and to a parallel layers in the receiver. It is otherwise blissfully unaware of the activities of the other layers.”[6]

Specifying protocols before their actual implementation turned out to be bad policy. Unfortunately for Japan and Europe, countries who had large domestic equipment manufacturers and did not want the US to control international telecommunications equipment markets, the opposite happened. These countries lost valuable time developing products with OSI standards while the computer networking community increasingly used TCP/IP. As the Internet took off, the manufacturing winners were companies like Cisco and Lucent. They ended up years ahead of other telecom equipment manufacturers and gave the US the early advantage in Internetworking.[7]

In another post, I explore the engineering of a particular political philosopy into TCP/IP.


[1] Janet Abbate. (1999) History of the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. p. 149.
[2] Janet Abbate. (1999) History of the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. p. 150.
[3] ibid, p. 155.
[4] Helmers, S.A. (1989) Data Communications: A Beginner’s Guide to Concepts and Technology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. p. 180.
[5] Schiller, D. (1982) Telematics and Government. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation. p. 109.
[6] Libicki, M.C. (1995) “Standards: The Rough Road to the Common Byte.” In Kahin, B. and Abbate, J. Standards Policy for Information Infrastructure. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. pp. 46-47.
[7] Abbate, p. 124.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2023, July 14). Pressing Global Standards for Internet Protocols.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea where he teaches broadband technologies and policy. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University where he taught digital economics while managing programs addressing information systems and telecommunications. He also taught in Digital Media MBA atSt. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in the Republic of Korea.


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