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The ITU Busan Plenipotentiary

The ongoing ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan South Korea is the quadrennial gathering where its Nation State Members gather to elect new leadership of its four permanent secretariats and populate a few other of its assorted bodies.

The next two weeks are spent in endless sessions where several regional blocs of Members still enamored with pre-liberalization telecom models complain about the new world of telecommunications that they did not invent—while engaging in copious use of their new smart phones and online services. The complaints and lamentations take the form of numerous formal and frequently foolishly amusing resolutions with page after page of sections beginning with headings like recalling, aware, considering, recognizing, request, resolve, instruct and invite—designed to pursue some favorite kvetch or pet project over the next four years in ITU activities. Some of those activities related to radio spectrum management and assisting developing countries are useful. Most of this output has dubious value by any measure.

So if one forgets about the basically clueless proposals submitted in the documents, the more interesting question is who goes to these events and subjects themselves to the mind numbing experience.

Nearly 3000 people have been “announced” as attending from the ITU’s 193 Member States. Another 177 people come through back doors consisting of eight organizational rubrics to observe. If you ignore the 339 participants from the host country—Korea—this leaves about 2,660 people who are theoretically there and whose organizations have spent many millions of dollars for the dubious pleasure. After the first week of activity, about 2000 of them have arrived in Busan.

So if one takes the document containing the announced participants, with a little conversion programming, an analytical spreadsheet can be created that enables a cursory view of the metrics of “who is there” and perhaps why. The resulting scatter chart of attendee PP-14 delegations is shown below. But first, the big picture.

On the whole, there are very few companies or private sector there. The few attending are basically watching for mischief. The attendees are predominantly from government agencies in 176 countries which still exist to deal with intergovernmental organizations and telecommunications, and have some vestigial relationship or job function associated with the ITU’s overall management or one of its three sectors—radio, development assistance, and legacy telecommunication standards. The attendees are also largely men—three-quarters of them are male. Almost ninety percent of the heads of delegations are men.

At a time when the entire world of telecommunications is massively driven by the private sector and non-ITU organizations, the venue is also perhaps the most substantially alienated on the planet from the real world surrounding them. As much of the mobile IT world awaits the arrival of Lollipop and sixty new work items in NFV are underway, those in Busan are wordsmithing many texts for an era that disappeared twenty years ago—even as they are fingering their smart phones.

At the individual delegation level, there isn’t much to say about the host country participants except that there are more than three hundred of them, and they are nearly all from a handful of South Korean government agencies. The most prominent of them is the Ministry of Science, ICT, and Future Planning. Given the range of government positions present, it appears that almost any high level government official could come: 49 directors, 41 deputy directors, 26 assistant directors, 15 director-generals, plus a large sprinkling of ministers of different ranks.

After South Korea, the United States has the second largest delegation. The numbers are a reflection of the generally justifiable nervousness that pervades Washington whenever the ITU holds a treaty conference and the desire by the U.S. to be open and inclusive. A rational strategy like that manifested by most European countries in “blowing off” the ITU as an irrelevant PTT dinosaur that largely died 20 years ago would result in the U.S. sending maybe a dozen people with the message that the U.S. is cutting in half its unjustifiably large voluntary financial contribution like 30 other Western nations have done. That seems never to happen. Instead there are 102 representatives from about ten U.S. government agencies, and 62 from 40 different companies, industry organizations, consultants, and law firms.

If the size of the U.S. participation is predictable, it is the representation of some other nations that is mystifying if not incredulous. Nigeria, for example, is sending 158 people. With the exception of seven, all are government bureaucrats. Although Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa and a robust telecommunications marketplace, the value of having so many government officials attending an ITU Plenipotentiary Conference is unfathomable.

The next cluster of delegations (40 to 77 people) are less than half the size of the U.S. and Nigeria. Some are perhaps predictable (China, Indonesia, Japan, UAE, South Africa, Russia, and Mexico). Others are not (Bangladesh, Zambia, Kazakhstan, Côte d’Ivoire). Here also, the participants are almost all officials from government bureaucracies. In the case of several, they are also pursuing ITU related strategies through resolutions introduced into the conference. China is a special case with one of its most prominent international technical leaders being elected ITU Secretary-General.

Twenty-four countries sent delegations of between 20 and 39. Only three (UK, Sweden, and Poland were from the West). The preponderance of countries—155—sent less than 20 people to the conference; and seventeen sent no one. Notably, the “tiger” information services country of Ireland sent only one person. As McLuhan would note, the medium is the message.

If there is one message here represented in boots on the ground at the ITU’s principal treaty conference, it is that most countries and nearly all private sector companies simply do not find the ITU as a particularly relevant organization anymore except in some radio spectrum management areas. And, they certainly are not going to spend money to send anyone to a conference whose primary purpose is producing resolutions to justify the organization’s continued activities in sectors in which the ITU role is miniscule and growing smaller by the day.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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