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The Radio Regulations Board
Its place, role and functioning in ITU
photo credit: ITU/V. Martin
Wladyslaw Moron,
Member of RRB *
Photo credit: © AFP/MKU

The Radio Regulations Board (RRB) is an important body in ITU. But the information needed to understand its role and functioning properly is widely dispersed. This article* gives a concise overview of the historical background, current duties and working methods of the Board. In the run-up to the Plenipotentiary Conference, to be held in Guadalajara, Mexico, on 4–22 October 2010, the information contained in this article may prove valuable to many, particularly to administrations of ITU Member States. Plenipotentiary conferences discuss, among other things, matters concerning the Board and elect its members.

Historical background

Radiocommunication was discovered in 1895, and the first Table of Frequency Allocations was created in 1912 by the International Radiotelegraph Union, an organization founded in 1903 when the infant radio technology allowed for the use of the kilohertz range only. This first Table of Frequency Allocations may be considered as the beginning of the Radio Regulations, even though it was only facultative.

Technology evolved, and in 1938 the Table was extended up to 200 MHz. This took place after the merger in 1932 of the International Radiotelegraph Union with the International Telegraph Union (created in 1865), forming what constituted the International Telecommunication Union, which is still thriving today.

ITU survived the Second World War in a dormant state and, following the Atlantic City Plenipotentiary Conference in 1947, started a new life. This was a time when the Allied Countries wanted to impose a new international order based on “lasting international peace, justice, and mutual trust”. The United Nations Organization was created to solve cooperatively major economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems, and the Atlantic City Conference incorporated ITU into the UN structure.

The importance of radiocommunications for humankind was already clear in 1947, and the conference was well aware of how important it was to have international order in the usage of the radio-frequency spectrum. This was the reason for creating the International Frequency Registration Board (IFRB) to manage the radio-frequency spectrum internationally and to solve related problems in a neutral manner. It also prompted the conference to place IFRB at the highest level in the structure of the Union. The Atlantic City Conference stressed that members of IFRB must be considered as “custodians of an international public trust” and not as representatives of their respective Member States or regions. At that time there were eleven members of IFRB, and they were expected to act independently and represent only themselves. To support their independence, they were paid from the ITU budget.

So as to maintain objectivity, IFRB members were expected not to request or receive instructions. Member States were asked to respect the exclusively international character of the duties of the members of the Board, and to refrain from attempting to influence them in the performance of their IFRB duties. Even the Secretary-General, the highest elected official in ITU, had no power over IFRB members. IFRB decisions were final and could be changed only by the majority of all Member States gathered at a Plenipotentiary Conference or at a world radio conference.

The Atlantic City Conference established that IFRB members must be “thoroughly qualified by technical training in the field of radio and possessing practical experience in the assignment and utilization of frequencies”, and must be elected by the Plenipotentiary Conference from candidates proposed by Member States. It is interesting to note that such qualifications and experience were required exclusively with regard to IFRB membership.

The Board was originally envisioned by its proponents “as something of a cross between the Federal Communications Commission and the International Court of Justice”. In reality, the IFRB never achieved a status comparable to that of those bodies. One of the reasons why IFRB did not achieve that status was because Member States did not allow it to perform all the functions of an arbitrator for radio-frequency spectrum usage by all the nations of the world. In other words, Member States were unwilling to yield any of their national sovereignty to a supranational regulator. Interestingly, they have done so elsewhere, in particular in the World Trade Organization.

Even with its limited powers, IFRB proved to be indispensable, confirming the wisdom of the decisions of the Atlantic City Conference. The Board served the ITU membership well and impartially, helping to ensure that the Radio Regulations were interpreted coherently and strictly observed.

After 18 years of existence of the IFRB with eleven members, the Montreux Plenipotentiary Conference in 1965 reduced its size to five. The Montreux Conference might even have abolished the Board completely, had the developing countries not supported IFRB, seeing the Board as a neutral body that could assist them and protect their interests vis-à-vis the developed countries.

Beginnings of change

Delays in the processing of frequency notifications and flaws in maintaining the International Frequency Master Register, as well as doubts about the efficiency of the management of the IFRB specialized secretariat led to criticism of the IFRB. Thus, in the 1990s, a special Panel of Experts was created to explore the long-term future of the Board. The Panel considered various ways of improving the situation. As concerns a part-time Board, the Panel’s report stated:

“ … doubts were also expressed concerning the difficulty a part-time Board member could experience in acting in an impartial manner. While some members of the Panel felt that a government official exposed to the policies of his national administration on a more or less continuous basis would inevitably have difficulties in acting, and being seen to act, in a completely impartial manner in meetings of the Board, others felt that impartiality was a human trait, inherent in the individual and not dependent upon the duties being undertaken.”

The Panel concluded that no significant changes were needed in the Board’s duties in regard to Member States but noted as drawbacks the collective directorship of the IFRB secretariat and the unclear division of competences and responsibilities among the five independent Board members in regard to the secretariat.

Some years later, the High-Level Committee on the Review of the Structure and Functioning of ITU proposed separating the international, high-level regulatory activities of the Board from the administrative internal management duties within the IFRB secretariat. It also recommended integrating the ITU’s regulatory activities in the field of radiocommunications with the Union’s work on the technical and operational aspects of radiocommunications, which were dealt with by the International Radio Consultative Committee (CCIR) with its own specialized secretariat headed by an elected Director.

Based on these proposals, the fundamental decision to replace the IFRB by a part-time RRB was taken by the Additional Plenipotentiary Conference in Geneva, in December 1992. The transitional period then started, during which the five full-time members of IFRB became five part-time interim members of RRB, and the Director of the CCIR became the interim Director of the newly created Radiocommunication Bureau (BR), which was formed by merging the former IFRB and CCIR specialized secretariats. This transitional period lasted until 1994, when the Kyoto Plenipotentiary Conference elected a ninemember part-time Board, and a Director with executive power to manage BR. The majority of Member States believed that such a reorganization would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of day-to-day management, and would assist in working towards eliminating the backlog in the frequency filing process, while at the same time significantly decreasing the budgetary expenses.

The Board today

The part-time Board members retain the status originally established for IFRB members in Atlantic City, and there have been no changes in the election procedure or qualification requirements.

The only change was that Board members were freed from running the specialized secretariat — this function was taken over by the Director of BR. Board members are no longer based at ITU headquarters in Geneva, and work without remuneration. They reside in their home countries and come to Geneva only for short meetings a few times a year. Their travel, subsistence and insurance expenses are paid by ITU.

This change created, however, a somewhat curious situation because it means that the financial burden of maintaining RRB members has effectively been transferred to the Member States whose candidates are elected.This situation gives rise to two different cases:

  • If the Board member is an employee of an administration or a company, the employer has to agree that sufficient time and resources will be devoted to RRB matters. Even if the Board member works on RRB matters in his or her own time, the employer must still agree to allow time off to attend RRB meetings in Geneva.

  • If the Board member is a retired expert (a situation that has occurred from the very beginning of the part-time Board), the administration of the Member State concerned is supposed to provide the conditions enabling the Board member to work for RRB. This has not always been done, and some Board members have been left without any assistance, which has perhaps had a detrimental impact on their work. Such instances prompted the Marrakesh Plenipotentiary Conference in 2002, in its Resolution 119, to call upon Member States to provide necessary assistance and support, or upon ITU in the case of developing countries where such support is not available.

Composition of the Board

The RRB currently consists of 12 members elected from the candidates proposed by Member States at the Plenipotentiary Conference. To achieve geographical balance, Board members are elected from five Administrative Regions. All ITU Member States can vote for the candidates from each region. In other words, voting is not restricted to the Member States in the region concerned.

The Administrative Regions and corresponding numbers of Board members are:

  • Region A (Americas): 2 members;

  • Region B (Western Europe)1: 2 members;

  • Region C (Eastern Europe and Northern Asia)2: 2 members;

  • Region D (Africa): 3 members;

  • Region E (Asia and Australasia)3: 3 members.

In the current term of office (2007–2010), RRB members are from the following countries:

  • Region A: Canada, United States;

  • Region B: France, Lithuania;

  • Region C: Kyrgyzstan, Poland (2nd term);

  • Region D: Cameroon (2nd term), Morocco (2nd term), Nigeria (2nd term);

  • Region E: India, Malaysia, Pakistan.

A Board member may serve for two terms only.

Duties of the Board

The duties and working methods of the RRB are defined in various parts of the ITU Constitution, Convention and Radio Regulations, and in Part C of the Rules of Procedure.

The most important and complex task of IFRB, and subsequently RRB, has been to act as a kind of a watchdog to monitor compliance with the Radio Regulations. The intertwined and very complicated regulatory and technical procedures comprising the Radio Regulations now cover almost 2200 pages. They set out compatible ways for 41 different radio services to work without interference, and they deal with a huge frequency range: from 9 kHz to 275 GHz (with research going beyond 3000 GHz).

The Radio Regulations are, of course, a living text. As technology progresses, successive world radiocommunication conferences — after appropriate preparatory work — correct, change and extend the provisions of the Radio Regulations. Despite the most careful consideration, a conference that only lasts a few weeks may adopt provisions and resolutions containing wording that is insufficiently precise, leading to divergent interpretations. Errors, too, cannot be totally excluded because to err is human.

To strive for compliance with the Radio Regulations worldwide is a demanding enough task for the Radiocommunication Bureau. Add to that the possibility of inaccuracies or inconsistencies in the Radio Regulations, as well as the sometimes conflicting interests of Member States, and the task becomes extremely complex. This brings to the forefront the role of RRB as an independent interpreter and mediator, whose decisions may be changed only by a world radiocommunication conference.

The Board’s ability to take decisions allows for rapid action. Otherwise, the only option would be to wait for the next conference. In many cases, this would involve a long delay, leading not only to economic losses for those involved, but also to matters becoming obsolete before any decision is taken.

In the framework of its duties, the RRB:

  • considers and approves Rules of Procedure that are needed to apply the Radio Regulations. The need for a Rule of Procedure may be identified by the Radiocommunication Bureau when applying the Radio Regulations, by an administration of a Member State or by RRB itself. These Rules standardize and make known the practices of BR, give clear interpretation to insufficiently clear formulations or may correct obvious errors in the Radio Regulations. Only a world radiocommunication conference may confirm, change or abolish the Board’s decisions;

  • considers disagreements between administrations, or between recognized operators (through their notifying administrations), concerning contravention or non-observance of the Radio Regulations (but only if an administration submits the case to the Board);

  • considers any appeal against a decision by the Radiocommunication Bureau or any other request submitted by an administration;

  • considers cases of harmful interference (but only if requested to do so by an administration), where the parties concerned cannot solve the problem themselves and the intervention of the Radiocommunication Bureau has not achieved results. Sometimes cases before the Board are very difficult in many aspects and may last for a long time;

  • considers any item requested by any member of the Board or by the Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau;

  • prepares proposals for world radiocommunication conferences to include appropriate Rules of Procedure in the Radio Regulations;

  • carries out other additional duties as prescribed by the World Radiocommunication Conference or by the Council with the consent of a majority of the Member States.

Such an additional duty was entrusted by WRC-97 through Resolution 80 on “Due diligence in applying the principles embodied in the Constitution”. Resolution 80 was adopted by WRC-97 and maintained and revised by WRC-2000 and WRC-07. It instructs the Board to consider possible draft recommendations and provisions that would allow the realization of the principles of equitable right to use, and equitable access to, frequencies and orbits. In contrast to other duties which represent in principle recurrent tasks, and are in general successfully solved, this task is very special and difficult and needs the good will and cooperation of many Member States, and has not yet been accomplished.

In regard to carrying out its duties, it would clearly be impossible for the Board to work effectively without the help and expertise provided by the staff of the Radiocommunication Bureau,whose Director serves as the Executive Secretary of the Board. In particular, the Bureau prepares documentation, analyses and explains the problems raised, and provides administrative support to the Board.

Meetings of the Board

Up to the end of 2008, the Board met four times a year, with each meeting normally lasting five days. From 2009, the frequency has been reduced to three meetings a year, in line with a decision by the Plenipotentiary Conference in 2006, in Antalya (Turkey), driven by budgetary constraints. In 2008, the Board discussed the difficulties that may arise with only three meetings per year, if routine work does not decrease and a significant workload arises from Resolution 80. Experience will show whether three meetings per year will allow for the smooth functioning of the Board and, more importantly, for the timely consideration of matters raised by administrations.

The Board works in a transparent manner, and its working methods are described in detail in Part C of the Rules of Procedure. Agendas and documents to be considered are available on the web before the meeting. The minutes of each meeting are available on the web in all six ITU languages. At the end of each meeting, a summary of the decisions taken by the Board is prepared and approved in English and French, and made available within a week on the web in those two languages, with the four other languages following.

Disagreements between administrations are considered by the Board only on the basis of documents presented. The representatives of interested parties do not take part in Board meetings. If more information and explanations are needed, the Board asks for additional documentation.

Concluding remarks

The Board — both the former IFRB and now RRB — has played an indispensable role for ITU and Member States. In the climate of cooperation and compromise prevailing in ITU, the Board is able to resolve the great majority of conflicts submitted to it, provided that no political ingredient is involved. If a case is driven by politics, however, the Board has no practical means of mediating or finding a solution. Such cases are rare but they do occur, and they remain on the Board’s agenda for a long time. Other forums are needed in which to consider and resolve these cases.

The quality of the Board’s work and decisions obviously depends on the qualifications of its members. The type of problems that the Board has to deal with require from its members adequate professional knowledge, familiarity with the Radio Regulations and ITU procedures, life experience, ethical behaviour, and the ability to work as a multicultural team immersed in an international environment. This — and the possibility to devote sufficient time to RRB matters — needs to be taken into account by administrations when submitting candidates for election to RRB.

* This article is based on a document presented to the 53rd meeting of the Radio Regulations Board, held in Geneva on 22–26 March 2010. References for suggested further reading are contained in this document, which is available at

The author would like to thank RRB members, especially Robert Jones (former Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau), as well as Valery Timofeev, Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau and his staff, for their help and valuable comments.

1. Region B includes not only the States situated in what is considered traditionally as Western Europe, but also other European States that wished to belong to Region B and joined it (after endorsement by the Plenipotentiary Conference). At present, these other States are: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Turkey.

2. Region C includes Central and Eastern European States (except those that joined Region B), as well as the following Asian States: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (after endorsement by the Plenipotentiary Conference).

3. Region E includes Asian States (except those in Region C), Australia and New Zealand.


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