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FCC Commissioner O'Rielly's Appalling Op-Ed on the ITU

Anthony Rutkowski

The FCC Commissioner Michael O'Reilly's recently contributed opinion on the ITU in "The Hill" is beyond bizarre. It also sadly displays an appalling lack of knowledge of the organization and its history. I find it disturbing — as someone who held senior positions at both the FCC and the ITU and wrote the organization's history — how fundamentally ignorant an FCC Commissioner could be today of the global telecommunications ecosystem. Unfortunately, it seems symptomatic of the current Administration's anti-multilateral, alt-truth approaches.

The International Telecommunication Union has existed pursuant to treaty instruments going back to 1850 when nations first met to interconnect their domestic electrical telegraph internets. The Geneva-based body is hardly "little known" — the only global intergovernmental telecommunications organization over the past 168 years. U.S. companies began participating a few decades after 1850 to connect the U.S. telegraph networks and after that the telephone networks. Around 1903 when radio internets became feasible, the U.S. government began participating. In 1920 the U.S. itself hosted the Washington Conference that led to the creation of the modern ITU. In 1947, the U.S. hosted the Atlantic City Conference that integrated all telecommunications under a single ITU intergovernmental umbrella — and associated it with the U.N. The ITU is not an "appendage of the United Nations," but an independent treaty-based organization recognized by the U.N. and instantiated by the U.S. in 1947.

O'Reilly needs to take the equivalent of my former course in International Telecommunication Law at New York Law School before he goes further. He also needs to understand that it was the FCC itself who helped work with industry to lead the efforts in the ITU to integrate the global telephone network in the 1950s, and to turn the DARPA packet network technology into global services in the 1970s in ITU fora, and then turn internet datagram networks and applications into services in the 1980s during the Reagan Administration through still more ITU fora. The FCC even undertook the policy-making proceedings in the late 80s to produce the treaty instrument enabling deployment of internet technology globally to the public. The ITU's treaty instruments have also been ratified by the U.S. and every other country in the world.

The ITU is not "trying to be the global regulator." It brings together sovereign nations so that they can harmonize their national regulatory regimes and provide global interoperable services. The treaty provisions and standards coordination enable O'Reilly to use his mobile phone and laptop overseas. And, as to spectrum policy for the future — the ITU is where the global spectrum management provisions for 5G are being developed. How about that for a "concrete idea"?

The really appalling part of O'Reilly's rant, however, is his failure to know that the ITU has had women in elected leadership positions. Indeed, it was the Obama Administration who put forward the first woman of colour to an ITU leadership position in 2014. Furthermore, she is a highly regarded, experienced U.S. expert in spectrum management sitting as vice-chair on the key ITU body that oversees spectrum management provisions and disputes. Inexplicably, the Trump Administration a few weeks ago embarrassingly withdrew her nomination to remain in her position, and thereby, removing the U.S. from an ITU spectrum management leadership position that it created in 1947. A knowledgeable and concerned FCC Commissioner should have known this. The rest of the world certainly does.

Disclaimer: The author is former FCC Senior International Policy Adviser, former ITU Chief of Telecommunication Regulations and Relations between Members, co-author of the reference book "ITU in A Changing World," former Adjunct Professor at New York Law School

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC
Related topics: Internet Governance
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