On 24 May 1844, Samuel Morse sent his first public message ov
er a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, and through that simple act, ushered in the telecommunication age.
Barely ten years later, telegraphy was available as a service to the general public. In those days, however, telegraph lines did not cross national borders. Because each country used a different system, messages had to be transcribed, translated and handed over at frontiers, then re-transmitted over the telegraph network of the neighbouring country.
Given the slow and unwieldy nature of this system, many countries eventually decided to establish arrangements which would facilitate interconnection of their national networks. However, because such arrangements were managed by each country at a national level, setting up telegraph links often required a huge number of separate agreements. In the case of Prussia, for example, no less than fifteen agreements were required for the link between the capital and the frontier localities bordering other German States. To simplify matters, countries began to develop bilateral or regional agreements, so that by 1864 there were several regional conventions in place.
The continuing rapid expansion of telegraph networks in a growing number of countries finally prompted 20 European States to meet to develop a framework agreement covering international interconnection. At the same time, the group decided on common rules to standardize equipment to facilitate international interconnection, adopted uniform operating instructions which would apply to all countries, and laid down common international tariff and accounting rules.
On 17 May 1865, after two and a half months of arduous negotiation, the first International Telegraph Convention was signed in Paris by the 20 founding members, and the International Telegraph Union (ITU) was established to facilitate subsequent amendments to this initial agreement. Today, some 145 years later, the reasons which led to the establishment of ITU still apply, and the fundamental objectives of the organization remain basically unchanged.
A New Industry Evolves
Following the patenting of the telephone in 1876 and the subsequent expansion of telephony, the International Telegraph Union began, in 1885, to draw up international legislation governing telephony. With the invention in 1896 of wireless telegraphy — the first type of radiocommunication — and the utilization of this new technique for maritime and other purposes, it was decided to convene a preliminary radio conference in 1903 to study the question of international regulations for radiotelegraph communications. The first International Radiotelegraph Conference held in 1906 in Berlin signed the first International Radiotelegraph Convention, and the annex to this Convention contained the first regulations governing wireless telegraphy. These regulations, which have since been expanded and revised by numerous radio conferences, are now known as the Radio Regulations.
The year 1920 saw the beginning of sound broadcasting at the improvised studios of the Marconi Company, and in 1927, the International Radio Consultative Committee (CCIR) was established at a conference held in Washington D.C. The International Telephone Consultative Committee (CCIF, set up in 1924), the International Telegraph Consultative Committee (CCIT, set up in 1925), and the CCIR were made responsible for coordinating the technical studies, tests and measurements being carried out in the various fields of telecommunications, as well as for drawing up international standards.
The 1927 International Radiotelegraph Conference also allocated frequency bands to the various radio services in existence at the time (fixed, maritime and aeronautical mobile, broadcasting, amateur and experimental), to ensure greater efficiency of operation in view of the increase in the number of radiocommunication services and the technical peculiarities of each service.
At the 1932 Madrid Conference, the Union decided to combine the International Telegraph Convention of 1865 and the International Radiotelegraph Convention of 1906 to form the International Telecommunication Convention. It was also decided to change the name of the Union to International Telecommunication Union. The new name, which came into effect on 1 January 1934, was chosen to properly reflect the full scope of the Union’s responsibilities, which by this time covered all forms of wireline and wireless communication.
A Modern Approach
In 1947, after the Second World War, ITU held a conference in Atlantic City with the aim of developing and modernizing the organization. The headquarters of the organization were transferred in 1948 from Bern to Geneva. At the same time, the International Frequency Registration Board (IFRB) was established to coordinate the increasingly complicated task of managing the radio-frequency spectrum; the same year, the Table of Frequency Allocations, introduced in 1912, was declared mandatory.
On 15 November 1947, an agreement between ITU and the newly created United Nations was approved by the UN General Assembly and became applicable, on a provisional basis, from that date. The agreement recognizing the International Telecommunication Union as a UN specialized agency formally entered into force on 1 January 1949.
In 1956, the CCIT and the CCIF were merged to form the International Telephone and Telegraph Consultative Committee (CCITT), in order to respond more effectively to the requirements generated by the development of these two types of communication.
The following year was marked by the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, and the beginning of the space age. In 1963, the first geostationary communications satellite (Syncom-1) was put into orbit following the suggestion, made by writer Arthur C. Clarke in 1945, that satellites could be used for the transmission of information.
In order to meet the challenges of new space communications systems, in 1959 CCIR set up a study group responsible for studying
space radiocommunication. In addition, an Extraordinary Administrative Conference for space communications was held in 1963 in Geneva to allocate frequencies to the various space services. Subsequent conferences made further allocations and put in place regulations governing the use, by satellites, of the radio-frequency spectrum and associated orbital slots. In 1992, allocations were made for the first time to serve the needs of a new kind of space service using non-geostationary satellites, known as Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite (GMPCS). The same year, spectrum was identified for IMT-2000, the ITU-developed next-generation global standard for digital mobile telephony. IMT-2000 now harmonizes incompatible mobile systems while providing a technical foundation for new, high-speed wireless devices capable of handling voice, data and connection to online services such as the Internet.
The Developing Role of the Union
In 1989, the Plenipotentiary Conference held in Nice recognized the importance of placing technical assistance to developing countries on the same footing as its traditional activities of standardization and spectrum management. To this end, it established the Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) to step up efforts being made to improve communications in the developing regions of the world.
At the same time, against a background of increasing globalization and the gradual liberalization of world telecommunication markets, the Nice Plenipotentiary Conference initiated a re-evaluation of the Union’s structures, operation, working methods and the resources allocated to enable it to achieve its objectives. The conference established a committee of experts whose task was to make recommendations on changes which would ensure that the Union continued to respond effectively to the needs of its members. In 1992, a plenipotentiary conference, known as the Additional Plenipotentiary Conference, took place in Geneva and dramatically remodelled ITU, with the aim of giving it greater flexibility to adapt to today’s increasingly complex, interactive and competitive environment.
As a result of the reorganization, the Union was streamlined into three Sectors, corresponding to its three main areas of activity Telecommunication Standardization (ITU-T), Radiocommunication (ITU-R) and Telecommunication Development (ITU-D). The new system also introduced a regular cycle of conferences to help the Union rapidly respond to new technological advances.
The Kyoto Plenipotentiary Conference in 1994 adopted the first-ever strategic plan for ITU, which advocated a more client-oriented approach and a programme of activities centred around the changing roles, needs and functions of ITU members.
In addition, the Kyoto conference established the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF), an ad hoc meeting which encourages the free exchange of ideas and information on emerging policy issues arising from the changing telecommunication environment. The first WTPF was held in Geneva in 1996 on the theme of global mobile personal communications by satellite, the second in Geneva in 1998, on trade in telecommunication services, the third in 2001, also in Geneva, on Internet Protocol (IP), and the fourth was held in 2009 in Lisbon, Portugal, on the topics of convergence, including internet-related public policy matters; next-generation networks; emerging telecommunication policy and regulatory issues; and International Telecommunication Regulations.
The Marrakesh Plenipotentary Conference in 2002 established bridging the international digital divide as one of the priority actions to be undertaken by the Union by facilitating the development of fully interconnected and interoperable networks and services and taking a leading role in the preparations and follow-up of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
WSIS was the first gathering of global leaders to address the issues of the Information Society and was held in two phases. The first phase took place in Geneva from 10 to 12 December 2003, bringing together over 11,000 participants from 175 countries, including nearly 50 Heads of State and Government and vice-presidents. The second phase was held in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005 with the participation of over 19,000 participants from 174 countries and nearly 50 Heads of State and Government and vice-presidents. WSIS resulted in four outcome documents addressing the issues of the Information Society, including the use of ICT for development, cybersecurity, Internet governance, affordable access to communications, infrastructure, capacity building, and cultural diversity.
The Union’s most recent Plenipotentiary Conference, held in Antalya, Turkey, from 6 to 24 November 2006, agreed on a strategic plan and decided on financial parameters for the 2008-2011 quadrennial. It set out a road map for the Union to chart its future course as the pre-eminent world body for telecommunications and state-of-the-art information and communication technologies (ICT). The Conference endorsed ITU’s essential role in Bridging the Digital Divide and highlighted ITU’s leading role in the multi-stakeholder process for the follow up and implementation of the relevant WSIS goals and objectives.
In 2007, ITU co-organized the Connect Africa Summit with the overall objective of mobilizing the human, financial and technical resources required to close Information and Communication Technology (ICT) gaps throughout Africa. The summit was held in Kigali, Rwanda, 29-30 October 2007 and resulted in investment commitments of over USD 55 billion, with the ICT industry taking the lead. The summit also decided to bring forward ICT connectivity goals to 2012 to enable the achievement of the broader Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. A Connect CIS Summit was organized by ITU in November 2009, and held in Minsk, Belarus, to debate the digital future of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
ITU will continue to review and adjust its priorities and its working methods to ensure it remains relevant and responsive in the face of rapid changes in the global telecommunication environment. As the world becomes ever more reliant on telecommunication technologies for commerce, communication and access to information, ITU’s role in standardizing emerging new systems and fostering common global policies will be more vital than ever before.