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Toward an ITU Renaissance

For nearly fifty years now, a significant portion of my professional engineering and lawyering life has been threaded through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It has included all of its multiple sectors, working on the inside for two Secretary-Generals and running its Relations between Members and Regulations Division, writing two books including “The ITU in a Changing World” with the late George Codding, representing the U.S. at several conferences, teaching its public international law as an LLM graduate course, writing dozens of ITU technical standards in leadership roles, and producing many hundreds of published articles.

With the selection of a significantly different new slate of elected officials by the ITU’s governing body, it seems appropriate to contemplate the potential for an ITU renaissance going forward. Doing so necessarily includes reflecting on what has transpired over the past twenty-five years that has resulted in the ITU’s significant diminishment compared to the previous zenith it had previously enjoyed. What can the new ITU management do differently today? What are the limits of any renaissance?

The Past

Although component institutional pieces and activities of the ITU date back to 1850, what exists today came together in 1947 after World War II, courtesy of the United States. Like the U.S. had previously done after World War I in 1919, it convened a series of meetings among the leading nations to create: 1) treaty provisions that enable electronic communication networks and services together with non-interfering radio spectrum management among the world’s nations, and 2) institutional processes with secretariats to implement the treaty provisions. The work of the ITU also significantly enabled the emergence of global markets for products and services. The initiatives after WW-I laid the groundwork for what ensued in 1947.

The years that followed the ITU’s creation in 1947 began stressing the norms and institutions as the Cold War ensued, the colonial nations became independent members, and technologies rapidly evolved. Notable new technologies included integrated worldwide telephone networks, satellite radiocommunication, and digital packet data networks. Although private sector providers of products emerged, it was government agencies known as PTTs or regulated national monopolies that provided the services. The ITU rapidly emerged as the near monopoly global venue for all things telecommunication—complete with mammoth tradeshows that attracted exponentially scaling providers of products and services in a global market and provided substantial engagement in its standards-making and regulatory activities. It also provided considerable additional discretionary revenue for ITU developmental projects.

The ITU’s largest component dealing with radio spectrum management and interference avoidance activities continued to scale, notwithstanding occasional political controversies over geostationary satellite norms. Large international intergovernmental organizations also emerged as global satellite service providers.

Those countries with the largest providers of products and services flocked to all of the ITU’s institutional venues and activities—vying for leadership positions, submitting enormous numbers of documents to shape its standards, engaging regulatory authorities and legal communities, and building ever larger pavilions at its trade shows. In short, the ITU provided enormous unique technical, economic, legal, and political value propositions.

What Happened?

In the late 1980s into the 1990s, a trifecta of developments ensued to strip away most of the ITU’s value propositions. The radio sector escaped the worst effects because of its unique roles but ultimately was impacted.

The most significant change was the transition of global telecommunications from a global club of monopoly providers and regulatory authorities to free-for-all, largely open global marketplace of providers of products and services. They pursued customers directly or through new organizations and had no need for the ITU venues and activities—which became an unnecessary, non-revenue producing cost.

The second component of the impacting trifecta was the continuous incredulous shrinking of semiconductor components down to the present 3 nanometers, combined with the equally incredulous increase of bandwidths via optical fiber and radio transmission media. These developments were exploited by the two most significant global marketplace developments.

One was the emergence of terrestrial mobile networks, services, and products as the principal global telecommunications platform represented by GSM. It established its own enormous standards body (3GPP), secretariat (ETSI), self-governance body (GSMA) and tradeshows (Mobile World Congress). The mobile community also very wisely made all its standards and related documents available for free on websites—enormously facilitating the takeup.

At the same time, the TCP/IP internet community similarly emerged with its virtual overlay of networks, services, and products to eat away at most of what was left. It also established its own standards and self-governance bodies and tradeshows. Like the mobile industry, it made all its materials available for free on websites.

Threaded among both platforms was an ever-expanding and diverse mass media marketplace that attempted to use vestigial broadcast spectrum combined with whatever other medium available.

The third set of components adversely affecting the ITU were largely the doing of its constituent members as they flailed around searching for role and relevance. It began by hyping the TCP/IP internet and asserting some kind of governance role—frequently egged on by Russia. That was never going to end well. Accompanying this behavior was a kind of death-spiral that played out in the standards activities where an increasingly dwindling number of countries began playing ever more dominant roles to artificially prop up activities that had no real marketplace relevance or constituents. The behavior simply drove out almost everyone else and resulted in skeleton groups engaging in proforma work that advanced some personal, corporate, or national agenda.

ITU Renaissance – limits of the possible

While the path toward relevance and role of the ITU today remains fuzzy, there are things to avoid and to pursue—to the extent that is possible given the political and institutional demands and processes. All institutions and those who participate in them tend to aggrandize roles and engage in activities that are not needed to provide job security. The classic CCITT example was continuation of the standards working group for phototelegrams for years after the last one was sent. However, other communities, like some supporting the TCP/IP internet, are not much different today. The ITU’s portrayal of itself should reflect reality today and the limits of its role.

Firstly, ITU participants need to really understand the organization’s own history and context in a changing telecommunication ecosystem. It is NOT the United Nations—which has a significantly adverse connotation, generates bad press, and drives away constituents. The ITU is its own independent treaty-based global organization with organic/legislative instruments and separate federated bodies that date back to 1850 (not 1865) when the first telecommunication networks began spanning national borders. Each one of those bodies has its own constituents, requirements, and value propositions. They need to evolve independently and function.

The ITU needs to back off of its TCP/IP internet gambit that it stumbled into in 1998 and find other roles and relevance. TCP/IP is also rapidly disappearing as an overlay infrastructure. Similarly, the ITU non-radio roles and relevance in the mobile network world are miniscule. That work occurs in the massive 3GPP, GSMA, and ETSI activities. While there may be vestigial roles encouraging access to these platforms, getting engaged in operational and technical standards is unneeded and counterproductive for the ITU. The ITU needs to finally bring the tradeshow business to an end.

Discovering the value propositions of ITU’s treaty instruments and institutional activities will be the most important task of the new leadership working with cooperating members in government and industry. In a world of diverse, competitive institutions, the ITU needs to collectively decide what it can honestly offer in a world of competing global ICT organizations that industry and governments will support. “Inclusion” is a nice concept that goes back to the ITU’s origins but descends rapidly into the abstruse. The ITU as an institution also needs to begin at least recognizing the rapidly expanding “dark side” of ICT and the controls necessary to mitigate the adverse effects on societies and individuals. “Zero Trust” is the new technical and operational tenet and should have equal standing with connectivity and bandwidth.

The radio-based norms and activities are more easily “sold” than others as they are unique to the ITU, and the proliferation of new forms of satellite radiocommunication will certainly add to that. There may also be merit in applying radio “cybersecurity” norms that have existed for the hundred years to other media in dealing with the intractable challenges.

From personal experience in an internal ITU staff leadership role, eliminating activities and bringing about change is exceptionally challenging for an intergovernmental organization whose officials are constrained by a governing Nation-State Council and resolution-based encumbrances. However, the Plenipotentiary Conference has taken the first important step by electing individuals who can begin meeting those challenges.

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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