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WTSA, WCIT, WTPF: Apocalypse Now?

Gregory Francis

The year 2012 isn't meant to be apocalyptic, and with a little forethought it won't be, but it is the year in which we will reopen the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). For many companies this will be bad news for reasons that are already well-understood and for new reasons that countries keep piling onto the agenda: a recent favorite from Russia calls for the treaty to govern and regulate all telecommunications services, "existing, emerging, and future." If you're in the business of telecommunications, that's the poetry of Pushkin married in four easy words with the full horror of Dostoyevsky.

Prophecy

There are actually three events that are intertwined and which will address various aspects of the New Regulation foreseen in the ITRs, all happening within a few months of one another. The World Telecommunications Standardization Assembly (WTSA) and the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will both happen in December 2012, then the spring of 2013 sees a non-binding policy forum on related issues: the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF). While together these events could have titanic consequences for the industry, it is likely that they will be tackled, by stakeholders of all stripes, one by modest one. It is worth considering another approach.

Not Quite Seven Heads

It is usual and predictable that governments would approach each of these events one at a time. Among some countries of the G8, the strategy for each will be to ensure that nothing really changes. And this is indeed a worthy goal, despite it being a minority position in an environment governed my majoritarian voting. So in this preparatory time, when the processes and agendas of the three events are being invented, it is worthwhile — for those governments that are organized enough — to start socializing a set of issues that are acceptable for discussion at each event, and those that are simply no-go areas. It may mean accepting that the treaty-making conference (WCIT) talks about some very uncomfortable things. But unless there is some effort made to control the agenda, the same issues will come up again in each new forum. It is worth considering which matters to lock down in the WCIT, and which to entertain in the more anodyne policy forum (WTPF).

The kicker here is that governments and companies are going to have to come to some consensus over how to entertain discussion of issues without their leading to crippling regulation. And that requires more than the usual one-after-the-other, not-joined-up national and international preparatory processes. Otherwise we may end up talking about the same issues in all three places, and launching a world of uncertainty for years to come.

Revelation

That these three conferences come within a few months of one another means that it is easier to consider them together, but also that it is easier for issues to metastasise from one to another. The industry, the Community, and the governments that support them, have time to come up with a strategy that keeps the outcome sane, but treats issues just enough that they don't gain momentum. From that perspective, these conferences are opportunities as much as bad dreams. Sleep well.

By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership
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