WCIT Moves Slowly

In case you’re an ITU-watcher and you haven’t seen my report on the World Conference on International Telecommunications (currently running in Dubai until the 14th,) it’s here. For  the rest, here’s the background:

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU,) formerly known as the International Telegraph Union, is an agency of the United Nations responsible for regulating global telecommunications. Primarily, it manages the global use of the telephone network, harmonizes radio frequency spectrum assignments, and establishes worldwide telecommunications standards and interconnection practices. At its upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai from December 3 – 14, ITU will consider a number of proposals that would expand the scope of its power to Internet regulation, interconnection, and governance as well as to the information technology (IT) sector generally.

These proposals, if adopted in full, would transform ITU from an international telecommunications sector regulator to an “Information Technology and Communications (ICT) regulator,” vastly expanding its reach. The mechanism for this expansion is amendment of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs,) treaties that specify the ITU’s duties and the common agreements among its 193 member states.

Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary-General of the ITU and chief proponent of extending the ITRs to the Internet and the IT sector, sought to justify the WCIT agenda in a recent article in Wired Magazine. His declared that his principal objective is to satisfy concerns over universal service:

The conference will chart a globally agreed-upon roadmap that offers future connectivity to all, and ensures sufficient communications capacity to cope with the exponential growth in voice, video, and data. The sole focus of the event is making regulations valuable to all stakeholders, creating a robust pillar to support future growth in global communications.

Touré cited additional concerns regarding safety and cybersecurity: “Governments are looking for more effective frameworks to combat fraud and other crimes.”  But it’s anything but clear that future connectivity to all will be accomplished by regulation.  Rather, such a digital opportunity agenda is best accomplished by smart and robust broadband deployment and adoption policies in individual nations and the limited use of global funds for smart infrastructure development initiatives in poor countries.

A number of nations and non-government organizations have floated proposals ranging from the development of some sort of international cyber-security approach to formalizing billing to setting global standards for Internet Quality of Service and beyond. Much of this has a wishful thinking character because the Internet architecture doesn’t lend itself to management by treaty.

While it’s easy to talk about requiring a minimum QoS level at each international interconnection point, it’s much more difficult to implement it. Similarly, while we all want the Internet to be more secure and less friendly for crime, we don’t know how to do that, and we never will. The best we can do with Internet security, in the current architecture, is bail water faster every time the boat springs a leak. And Internet billing – at the interconnection level rather than the consumer level – is a matter of mutual agreement today and must continue to be in the future. So one has to wonder why the WCIT would seek to enact requirements that aren’t technically enforceable.

The answer to this question is two-fold: On the one hand, a number of the less wealthy nations are having a hard time keeping up with the demands that broadband has on their telecom infrastructures. For the poor sub-Saharan nations, Eastern Europe, and much of Latin America, the inherited telecom network consists of copper pairs that only reach a small minority of the population. This infrastructure is so poor that it has effectively been bypassed by cellular.

At its peak in 2006, the telephone network served 1.3 billion people, while the mobile network serves 6 billion today and is still growing. So we’re not in the traditional world any more with telephony. The ITU was heavily involved in plain old telephone regulation, and moderately involved in mobile as well; international harmonization of wireless band plans comes from the ITU, for example, and they’re an innovation enabler.

Now that mobile users are adopting smartphones and both business and residential users in the poor countries are beginning to access the Internet over 3G networks, costs are rising for the wired backhaul that makes the mobile networks run. They’re looking to the developed world for financial help with upgrading their infrastructure. We subsidize their POTS networks today, so this is viewed as something of an entitlement.

The other motivation is simply to keep the ITU relevant. The POTS network is on the way out, and when it’s gone a host of communication ministers around the world will need to learn new trades, so it’s in their interests to delay the transition from POTS to IP as long as possible.

The first issue for WCIT is the threshold question of the scope of the ITRs. As written, they limit the ITU’s jurisdiction to telecom matters – simple connections – but those who are concerned about ITU relevance want to expand the scope across the entire range of Information Technology.

The U. S. and Canada have introduced a resolution that would keep the current scope intact, but so far they don’t have enough support to pass it. This isn’t unusual at this stage, however. The question of scope will probably not be settled until close to the end of the conference, even though it’s vital. If resolved successfully, most of the bad things you’ve heard about WCIT can’t come to pass.

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About the author

Richard Bennett is an ITIF Senior Research Fellow specializing in broadband networking and Internet policy. He has a 30 year background in network engineering and standards. He was vice-chair of the IEEE 802.3 task group that devised the original Ethernet over Twisted Pair standard, and has contributed to Wi-Fi standards for fifteen years. He was active in OSI, the instigator of RFC 1001, and founder, along with Bob Metcalfe, of the Open Token Foundation, the first network industry alliance to operate an interoperability lab. He has worked for leading applied research labs, where portions of his work were underwritten by DARPA. Richard is also the inventor of four networking patents and a member of the BITAG Technical Working Group.