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ITU 2.0: Take Time to Make Good Decisions

Gregory Francis

Since the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) discharged delegates from an atmosphere of restrained acidity last December, ITU habitués have wondered how that outcome will affect the rhythms of their regular work in Geneva. This is no less true for governments that approved of the WCIT treaty as it is for those which did not, though the immediate anxiety may be greatest for the latter — for those whom we can call, with sloppy shorthand, the G8. Such high stakes present the best reason to take time in deciding on the right next step.

Of Fashion and Sense

Even if the fashion is to disparage the ITU just now, bits of it function well enough. Those members of the G8 that are home to manufacturers of communications equipment and operators of broadband networks know this. They are, with periodic setbacks, ploddingly rewarded for their ITU work: they get (regionally) harmonised frequencies, telecommunications standards and, for operators of space networks, orbital positions that enable long-term operations. Since the WCIT, however, it is easy to believe that governments which are not part of the G8, having started to enjoy the alliterative sounds of their swadeshi rhetoric (classics never go out of style), will offer up less harmony, narrower spectrum uses, and a whole lot fewer parking places for the space assets of the G8's strategic communities.

A Body in Rest Tends to Stay...

2013-14: In the near-term the traditional ITU dynamics are unlikely to change much, for reasons both behavioural and economic.

Frequency and standards discussions remain largely technical. Participants in ITU radio work and standards matters are regulators and bureaucrats, not politicians. There are a few chances to grandstand, but the subject matter makes acerbity hard to sustain: the main argumentation and dialogue is underpinned by colourless, grinding engineering. "Economic colonialism" doesn't rhyme well with "Megahertz".

Nor do most developing countries contribute much to this part of the ITU process: they lack the market size to want to set their own standards, they lack indigenous businesses that demand one, and they lack manpower and budget to attend and push an agenda. Instead, these governments are inclined to arrive at the negotiations with broad instructions to listen to the arguments, and to decide positions according to what promises the best future and least reform. Who develops the compelling technical arguments to which these governments respond? Manufacturers and network operators, sometimes working in tandem with a predictable host of governments (try to spot a distinction between the positions of Nokia and Finland in some of these forums).

Finally, governments of even the least developed economies are clear on the importance of affordable network infrastructure, terrestrial or space-based; ditto on the efficiency of global standards. And a lot of switching equipment, handsets, networks, and satellite connections are still made or designed in the G8 (until China supplies all of these, universally… but this is yet a few years off). So no matter how tempting it may be to carry the WCIT tussle over into the regular ITU bodies, and to block access to the frequencies and orbital positions companies seek, it is the countries with the least developed infrastructures that would suffer most if the G8 were not allowed to continue to do well out of the ITU. More to the point: can you inveigh too long against the same entities that help build, connect or service your national broadband infrastructure without looking a little disingenuous?

Admit That the Waters Around You Have Grown

Inertia and the pace of economic development will not long stand between change at the ITU or anywhere else. But just now, after WCIT, they provide an eddy that allows us to avoid panicked policy decisions. We are on notice that conserving the benefits of the ITU's technical work will, over the longer term, require the G8's many stakeholders to develop their own individual international engagements. These will involve some considered outreach to developing-country governments to blunt the inclination to scold rather than collaborate, the restraint to leave much of the evangelising on matters of principle to the diplomatic corps, and a willingness to reward all organisations that serve them well with in-kind support, policy attention, and more than a bit of coin.

By Gregory Francis, Managing Director at Access Partnership

Related topics: Internet Governance

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