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Return of the WCIT

Anthony Rutkowski

The title looks like a horror show advertisement; or, maybe a recurrent plague. It is actually a combination of both, and last inflicted itself on the world two years ago in Dubai. It could be visiting us again in the years to come.

WCITs – A Dinosaur Regime

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced wicket) and formerly known as Administrative Conferences have been around for the past 150 years. There have been 31 of them held under the aegis of a U.N. agency known as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and its precursors. The treaty instruments they produced were variously known as International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR), Telephone Regulations, and Telegraph Regulations.

WCITs have historically been international treaty conferences among the government agencies in almost every country known as PTTs (Post, Telegraph, and Telephone bureaus) that once provided the monopoly telecommunication services. The United States, Canada, and a few other nations were exceptions with private-sector providers. Beginning in 1850, these agencies met and produced treaties every few years that controlled what services every citizen received, the rates, and who got what cut of the revenue. The tightly knit global cartel also controlled who had access to the underlying international telecommunications infrastructure to prevent competition.

In 1988, the WCIT cartel engaged in what should have been a last hurrah. It was coming under siege from the World Trade Organization and faced profound change from competitive provisioning regimes in increasing numbers of countries that eliminated the PTTs. Major nations declared they would no longer be bound by the ITR provisions.

During the 1990s, the revolution continued as underlying circuits became available for competitive providers and new services. Coupled with the emergence of the Internet that created open end-to-end services on top of the telecommunication infrastructure, the old WCIT regime crumbled. Almost everyone forgot that the ITRs even existed.

WCIT Resurrection

Then about ten years ago, the remaining intransigent national administrations who retained a fondness for the old WCIT regime began organizing to resurrect the WCIT and embellish the International Telecommunication Regulations by adopting far-reaching regulatory and technical oversight controls on Internet and mobile services. This occurred at Dubai in 2012. The preponderance of modern nations rejected the WCIT gambit and left the conference, refusing to sign the provisions. The map listing the 89 signatories below out of 193 nations is telling as to the patterns of what occurred.

The map listing the 89 signatories below out of 193 nations is telling as to the patterns of what occurred.
(Click to Enlarge)

Return of the WCIT?

By any measure, the 2012 WCIT was a debacle, and the treaty instrument it produced was a throwback to a PTT era that everyone thought had disappeared. The nations most harmed were the signatories — who committed themselves to a failed regime that appears ludicrous in an era when virtualized telecommunication and information services exist on billions of smart phones and other devices that roam and connect to cloud computing data centers worldwide. Almost 30 nations indicating they had enough, significantly reduced their ITU funding and participation. The participation in its telecommunication technical activities now usually consists of a handful of people sitting around checking their eMail and wondering why they came - as all the real work occurs in industry bodies elsewhere.

U.N. organizations, however, march to a different drummer, and a 2006 resolution appended to an ITU treaty conference that year is potentially providing new life to the WCIT regime. Resolution 146 citing a need to maintain the organization's "pre-eminent role in global telecommunications," set the stage for the 2012 WCIT. It was originally advanced by the same Arab and African States, and the Russian Commonwealth members who signed the 2012 treaty.

Some of these players are now contemplating the adoption of the ancient PTT practice of holding regular WCITs as a new norm via Resolution 146. This rather incomprehensible development is now underway, as the hosting organization — the ITU — moves toward the quadrennial meeting of its member nations beginning in late October in Korea.

Some kind of disposition will occur. The rational outcome would see Resolution 146 simply cease and the ancient WCIT regime allowed to come to a peaceful end.

Endnote: The author headed the Secretariat staff at the 1988 WCIT (known at that time as WATTC) — that we hoped would be the last one. Unfortunately, intergovernmental bodies are difficult to terminate no matter how worthless and counterproductive.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

Related topics: Internet Governance

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Comments

The need for settlements Michael Elling  –  Aug 26, 2014 11:01 AM PST

The IP stack lacks price signals and incentives.

These are necessary to clear marginal supply and demand efficiently both north/south and east-west in the informational stack in rapid and market-driven fashion.  Need more bandwidth from a centrally procured app or managed service?  Balanced settlements. 

Simply put, bill and keep or settlement free peering does not facilitated rapid service creation and infrastructure investment.

Those who argue the hallmark of the internet revolution was settlement free peering are confusing absolutes and relatives.  The absolute cost of data transit and peering in the 1990s was falling at a precipitous rate due to core voice (WAN) competition and investment.  At the same time the amount of data traffic was relatively small and mostly 1-way.

We now see with video and the need to drive 2-way forms of communication creating problems with universal service and access models. 

I do not support govt driven settlement systems, nor the contrivance of net neutrality.  Market driven balanced settlements based on marginal cost that provide price signals, incentives and value conveyance that increase the amount of centralized procurement (through managed VPNs and advertising) is far more stimulative than ad hoc edge subscription models.

Last note, we do need open access or interconnect in the lower layers and out to the edge as a necessary quid pro quo for a balanced settlement system to work.

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