ITU Tries To Send A Clearer Signal On Global Telecom Talks

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The UN International Telecommunication Union is conducting constructive and potentially lucrative negotiations to update global telecommunications regulations, but the message keeps getting garbled in public fora, ITU officials said.

ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Touré led a special press briefing on 22 June and called it “an opportunity to set the record straight” after blogs and news articles have mischaracterised the talks.

At issue is an update of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR) at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to be held in December in Dubai.

Part of the problem with reporting accuracy might be that the WCIT documents are confidential. But even people who have had access to the WCIT documents have purposely mischaracterised them in ways that could be seen as credible by the public, he said. ITU officials later declined to specify what the mischaracterisations have been.

Touré said the WCIT will be a “catalyst” for the free flow of information. A question being asked is how best can the ITRs be adapted toward to goal of every person benefiting from information and communications technologies.

There appears to be agreement on the adoption of high level principles that will help with this, he said.

Another area in which the WCIT can help is with the risk of shortfall in infrastructure investment, he said.

Touré said the 1988 Melbourne conference that set the ITRs created a framework that enabled the “spectacular” growth of telecommunications since then, and he hopes for a similar boost this time.

The Melbourne conference “set the stage for the information society,” he said, and the 2012 conference “will set the stage for the knowledge society.”

The WCIT is an opportunity to create a stable international framework to “allow the market to flourish,” he said.

Touré spoke after the meeting of a preparatory working group for the WCIT.

Malcolm Johnson, director of the ITU Standardization Bureau, said this was the eighth and final working group meeting, and it produced an outcome document that is a composition of proposals for a new treaty.

The subject of proposals include international roaming, security, combatting spam, and misuse of the telephone numbering system, along with new proposals introduced this week such as climate change and energy efficiency standards, e-waste, and ensuring telecom services are accessible to people with disabilities.

The document will be made available to the ITU membership and serve as the basis for the proposals in Dubai in December, Johnson said.

There has been a series of regional meetings, which will continue. Each of the six ITU regions will have a set of proposals. No proposals are agreed yet.

Richard Hill of the WCIT secretariat said the ITRs establish international principles for telecom provision and operation, and that there is a need to revise them. For instance, in 1988, liberalisation and privatisation of telecoms was just starting, and most were still government-owned monopolies. The ITRs have been instrumental in the privatisation that took place, he said. Also since that time there has been a shift from fixed to mobile and voice to data, he said.

Up to now, there are some 124 input documents from member countries, most substantive, Hill said. Proposals can be loosely grouped into categories such as: the human right to access communication; international frameworks; interconnection and interoperability; convergence; security in the use of ICTs; protection of critical national resources; charging and accounting – including taxation; quality of service; and enforcement measures.

There are proposals on misuse and on things like the transparency of routing. It was pointed out that national authorities would be responsible for implementation of the agreed proposals. On roaming, the proposal is that national authorities should look at rates and make sure they are appropriate.

Touré said the goal is to come up with “very light touch” regulations aimed at encouraging competition and innovation, bringing down costs, addressing security and privacy issues, interconnection, and the lowest possible tax rates and no double taxation.

The WCIT presents a key opportunity to increase the positive collaboration between countries, he said. It can help countries reach new levels of economic and social development by means of efficient ICT services, and can make the ITRs relevant and valuable to the full ITU membership, so that they address and alleviate many current concerns.

He said the current level of friction between countries is something the ITU has seen many times before and always navigated successfully. For instance, it weathered two World Wars. “From friction comes light,” Touré said.

The outcome document will be something all sides can agree on, he said. For now, however, most articles in the draft outcome document have alternative proposals to be worked out.

The ITU Council will meet from 4-13 July.

Touré repeated several remarks made earlier this week, such as his call for the Council to decide to make all documents public (IPW, Information and Communications Technology, 20 June 2012).

William New may be reached at

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