Secretary-General's address to the Plenipotentiary Conference
Mr. Governor of the State of
On behalf of the members and staff of the International Telecommunication Union, I would like to thank the Government of the United States of America for having invited us to come to your country to celebrate the Plenipotentiary Conference which begins today -- the 15th such conference held since our founding in Paris in 1865, and the first to be held in the United States since the Atlantic City Conference launched the modern ITU in 1947.
It is particularly appropriate for the ITU to return on this occasion to the country that has made such enormous contributions to the development of global telecommunications, and to the broader tele-information industries. As the exhibition on the way into this conference centre reminds us, ITU Plenipotentiary Conferences have usually coincided with major scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and service innovations. When historians look back on this conference, I am sure they will find that it is no exception.
This may seem like a very safe prediction, since so much is happening in telecommunications today. However, truly significant developments are not always easy to see. With the benefit of hindsight, we all know that the most important technological development to coincide with the Atlantic City conference was the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs. Fifty-one years later, we can see that this development has revolutionized not only telecommunications and information technology, but literally every area of life.
I would venture to say that today, even as we meet, an invention of equivalent significance is being made by someone, somewhere in the world -- perhaps even here in Minneapolis!
Only time will tell if this prediction is right. Even if it is not, there is no shortage of technological marvels to point to if we want to gauge the historical significance of this conference and measure the progress telecommunications has made since 1947.
As well as coinciding with the invention of the transistor, the Atlantic City conference coincided with another important breakthrough. It was not a technology breakthrough -- at least not immediately -- but more a leap of imagination. I am of course referring to Arthur Clarke's famous proposal to take advantage of two technologies whose development had been driven by military requirements during World War II -- radiocommunications and rockets -- in order to provide telecommunication services using artificial satellites launched into geostationary orbit.
Perhaps the best illustration of this technological imagination is the new generation of satellite systems which we in the ITU call "Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite" -- or GMPCS for short.
As we all know, one of our Sector Members -- Iridium -- had planned to begin operating the first GMPCS system on 23 September. This date has now been postponed until 1 November. The reason given for the delay had something to do with wanting to make sure that the system would work, and that all the technical bugs had been ironed out. Investors were apparently somewhat unhappy with this news. However, I personally was delighted. From my point of view it is good news since it means -- if all goes well -- that the inauguration of the first truly global communication system will take place during this conference.
What greater inspiration could there be to delegates to help them prepare the ITU for the new world of global communications, and for the information society of the twenty-first century!
Within a few years, other systems will provide Internet service from the skies above the earth and, even more incredibly, from the space around Mars and beyond.
These technologies are marvelous, and the members of the ITU -- both our Member States and Sector Members -- can be justly proud of the role they have played in making them possible.
Without the work of the ITU Radiocommunication Sector, there is no guarantee that there would be sufficient spectrum to allow these services to operate, or that they would be free from harmful interference.
Without the work of the ITU Standardization Sector, there is no guarantee that these services would interconnect and interoperate with other telecommunications networks in the seamless, transparent fashion that customers demand.
Without the work of the ITU Development Sector, there is no guarantee that GMPCS system operators and service providers would be seen as partners in the development of telecommunication networks, services and applications.
Without the work of the ITU GMPCS Memorandum of Understanding Group -- a unique partnership between government and industry without precedent in the world of international organization -- there is no guarantee that customers would be able to roam freely across borders with their GMPCS terminals and use these services in countries where they are authorized.
The implementation of GMPCS is of enormous symbolic importance. It means that the members of the ITU have succeeded in establishing the technological basis for achieving the goal of universal access to basic telecommunications which was established in 1984 by the Independent Commission for Worldwide Telecommunication Development -- otherwise known after its chairman as the Maitland Commission. As you will recall, the Maitland Commission called on the ITU to achieve this goal by the early years of the twenty-first century. With GMPCS in place, we are perhaps 90% of the way there.
However, we should not be too complacent. Let us remember the old saying that 90% of a job usually takes only 10% of the effort, and that the remaining 10% of the job usually takes 90% of the effort!
Although GMPCS and many other developments are providing the technological basis for universal access to basic communications and to information services -- what I like to call "the right to communicate" -- the real work is only beginning.
With the technological problems solved, our challenge now is now to ensure that access is affordable, and that applications are available to support the full range of human development needs -- whether these needs are individual, social, cultural, political or environmental.
In seeking to meet these challenges the members of the ITU can certainly look to our host country for at least some of the necessary inspiration.
The concept of universal telecommunication service was originated in the United States by Theodore Vail at the very beginning of this century. In recent years, United States regulators -- at both the federal and state levels -- have extensive experience in reconciling the economic requirements of competitive markets on the one hand with the social requirements of universally affordable access on the other.
Americans from both the public and private sectors have also been leaders in providing universal access to information sources -- from the days of Andrew Carnegie, who used the fortune he had made in the steel industry to establish a network of libraries, to today's communication and information technology entrepreneurs who are providing Internet access to schools, hospitals and community centres.
The members of the ITU will spend the next four weeks talking about global telecommunications issues and developing responses to some of the most important challenges facing the world community.
This Plenipotentiary Conference will not take place in some ethereal void -- even though the proceedings will be broadcast via the Internet into cyberspace.
In a sense, even though it is being held on American territory, this Plenipotentiary Conference will not really take place in the United States. As fascinating as our discussions are to those directly involved in them, this country is far too big for the ITU to hope to capture national attention -- as happened earlier this year at our World Telecommunication Development Conference in Valletta, the capital of Malta.
The 1998 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference will mainly happen here -- in this conference hall, and in the surrounding hotels -- here in Minneapolis.
I would particularly like to thank the State of Minnesota and the City of Minneapolis for having agreed to host this very important event.
As a native of Finland, I am of course personally delighted that the conference is taking place in the heartland of Scandinavian culture and tradition in the United States!
More to the point, I am sure that I speak on behalf of all the delegates and other participants in this conference when I say that -- from the moment of our arrival -- we have experienced and already come to appreciate the warmth, the openness and the hospitality for which the people of this region are famous. We are grateful for the enormous effort you have made to welcome so large number of visitors, from so many different countries, speaking so many different languages, and to make them feel as guests in this beautiful city.
We thank you as well for having created such an impressive international conference centre, just for our meeting. These spacious, light and airy surroundings -- as well as the state-of-the art communications infrastructure you have put in place for this event -- will greatly assist us in doing our work.
If the delegates do their work over the next four weeks as well as you have done your work over the past couple of years, this conference will certainly be a resounding success!
At the end of my remarks to the first Plenary meeting this morning, and following my usual practice, I promised to reveal an acronym based on the name of our host city which would capture the main challenge facing this conference and hopefully inspire the delegates in their work.
My acronym for the 1998 Plenipotentiary Conference goes as follows:
As well as hopefully providing inspiration for this conference, this acronym – in particular, the reference to promoting an open, lively information society provides me with a good basis for introducing the next speaker in this afternoon’s programme.
All of us in the ITU know that there can never be a truly global information society unless there is a truly global information infrastructure, which provides people everywhere with access – not only to basic telecommunications, but to basic information services as well.
In the era of Theodore Vail and Andrew Carnegie and even more recently, universal access to telecommunications and universal access to information were considered very different ideas. Today, they are very closely related, thanks in no small part to the efforts of our next speaker, who had the imagination to combine these two ideas into the concept of the Global Information Infrastructure.
He first proposed this idea in 1994 at the ITU’s Buenos Aires World Telecommunication Development Conference, and it immediately captured the attention of policy makers and industry leaders around the world. Today, I think it is fair to say that almost everyone in the telecommunications and information sector knows what the acronym "GII" means – or at least thinks they know.
In this connection, I have a confession to make.
For the world, "GII" means "Global Information Infrastructure". For me, however, it has a second and more personal meaning. I like to think that it means "Gore’s Inspirational Idea". I would even claim that this is the more important meaning, since the idea of global access to basic communications and information services is a more universal, more enduring, and more profound concept than the idea of a global information infrastructure.
Please welcome the Vice-President of the United States of America, Mr. Al Gore.n
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