World Telecommunication Day
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Photo of Mr Tarjanne

Message of the ITU
Secretary-General
for
World
Telecommunication
Day

Each year on the 17th of May, the International Telecommunication Union celebrates World Telecommunication Day to commemorate its founding in Paris in 1865. This year, our chosen theme for the event – Telecommunications and Humanitarian Assistanceis one which I believe is of great significance, both in acknowledging the important part our work has played in emergency aid operations in the past, and in looking at the benefits new kinds of telecommunications technologies might be able to offer in the future.

Almost since its earliest days, telecommunications has played an important role in disaster relief. The ability to communicate over distance – provided initially by the telegraph and later by the invention of the telephone and the development of radiocommunications – made telecommunications ideally suited to use in emergency situations, both in getting help to those involved, and in getting information to the outside world.

Perhaps no more graphic example can be found than in the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic on April the 14th, 1912. Radiocommunication technology was instrumental in soliciting aid from the nearby vessels California and Carpathia, which were able to proceed to the rescue. Sadly, many more lives could probably have been saved had other vessels in the vicinity been equipped with radiocommunication systems. As it was, they remained oblivious to the tragedy unfolding around them that night, and some fifteen hundred people lost their lives.

The impact of the Titanic disaster on maritime communications was enormous. That same year saw the adoption of the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and later the Radio Regulations were amended to include mandatory operational requirements and provisions on maritime distress communications. At the same time, the ITU was nominated as the watchdog for the correct application of maritime safety procedures.

The importance of radiocommunications in maritime safety has not diminished, and this technology also plays a vital role in emergency relief operations on the ground. Every year, teams of dedicated field workers from a wide range of national and international aid agencies work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in natural and man-made disasters. And the mainstay of a great many of these operations continues to be the messages received and transmitted by simple radio systems. This is especially true in areas of poor or unreliable telephone infrastructure, such as in geographically remote regions or the developing world. The role played by the Amateur Radio Service, in particular, has been invaluable over the years, providing, as it does, a worldwide decentralized radio network manned by highly competent operators. The planned introduction of an International Amateur Radio Licence by the International Amateur Radio Union should further facilitate international assistance during humanitarian relief operations.

Today, thanks to the very rapid development of mobile telephony, new ways of communicating with people struck by disaster or working in a disaster zone are also available. Whilst they will never replace radio in certain situations, mobile telephones have become indispensable as a means of getting information to victims. They are also invaluable tools for relief workers, who are able to co-ordinate team activities while in the field, and quickly mobilize emergency actions such as evacuations. The ability to provide communications on-the-move, and to provide continuity of communications despite localized damage to the ordinary telephone network, have made mobile telecommunications technology a great working tool in the field of humanitarian aid.

But even mobile telephony systems cannot help where there is widespread damage to the telephone network, which can occur following a natural disaster, such as a cyclone or earthquake, or a man-made one, such as a war. To deal with these kinds of crises, we will in the near future most probably turn to a new breed of telecommunications system, based around constellations of Low and Medium-Earth-Orbiting satellites. Several of these new systems are due to be launched over the next five years or so, and they bring with them the promise of seamless global mobile telephony, regardless of the whereabouts of the user, or the existence of on-the-ground telecommunications infrastructure. When fully implemented, they could prove to be a great asset in the effort to save lives and ease the suffering of those affected by large-scale disasters.

The importance of telecommunications systems in the area of disaster relief, as well as the usefulness of new kinds of telecommunications technologies in disaster warning and prevention, was recognized by the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Kyoto in 1994. The conference adopted a special Resolution which recommends the establishment of an international Convention which has, as one of its aims, the removal of regulatory barriers applying to telecommunications equipment, which can sometimes interfere with international relief operations. I am pleased to be able to report that this Convention was approved by the 1996 session of the ITU Council, and is expected to be adopted at an intergovernmental conference later this year. The ITU, working alongside the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, will continue to play an active part in its future implementation.

It is perhaps sad to reflect that disasters of one kind or another will go on affecting the population of our planet. Unpredictable and dramatic changes in weather, geological upheavals, and even people's inability to live peacefully with their neighbours, are factors too large in scale ever to be under our control. But it is heartening to me, as Secretary-General of the ITU, to know that our work in the development of new communications technologies has gone - and will continue to go - a long way toward lessening the impact of such events on the lives of ordinary people.

Let us therefore celebrate this year's World Telecommunication Day in a spirit of optimism, recognizing the great achievements of the past, as well as those yet to come. Communications is about bringing people together, and helping one another. Humanitarian assistance embodies this communications ideal, and I can think of no better application of the ITU's work over the last 132 years.

Pekka Tarjanne
Pekka Tarjanne
Secretary-General


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