World Telecommunication Day 1998

May 4, 1998

The ITU Moves to Trim Down, Speed Up and Work Closely with Private Sector

Reforms aim to take account of changes in the industry and in its membership.

The winds of change are whistling around the Geneva headquarters of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which has served the world's telecommunications industry since its founding in 1865.

Today's telecom environment is no longer a cozy club of government-owned operators, as it was a century ago: Current membership includes 188 member states and about 500 nongovernmental members, the overwhelming majority of whom are manufacturers and operators from the private sector.

Changing role of governments

The private-sector members are pushing for changes at the ITU. In the last 15 years, more than 80 of the ITU's government members have privatized their telecommunications operations. As governments' role has gravitated from operator to regulator, the organization has been wrestling with changes appropriate to this new and rapidly evolving situation.

Contrary to popular misperception, private sector interests have always been present at the ITU. Since 1871, they have played a role in the organization's three principal areas of activity - the creation of global telecoms standards, the assignment of frequencies for radio (as part of national delegations) and, more recently, the funding and fleshing out of telecoms infrastructure for developing countries.

What the private sector does not have are the voting rights of full members. Don MacLean, chief of strategic planning and external affairs for the ITU, explains, ''Because we are an intergovernmental organization, only governments have been full members with full voting privileges.''

A voice, not necessarily a vote

In his opinion, however, the private sector probably doesn't want these voting privileges per se. ''They don't necessarily want to spend their time in plenipotentiary sessions.''

What the private sector wants is speed, flexibility and a say in the approval process, he maintains.

The faster technology moves, the slower the pace of a 133-year-old structure must seem.

In recognition of the situation, the ITU undertook a major structural and operational reorganization in 1992, for the first time in 50 years. ''We wanted to involve the private sector and make the decision-making process more responsive,'' says Mr. MacLean.

Subsequently, a set of 30 recommendations called ITU 2000 was developed between 1994 and 1997. Recommendations requiring amendments to the ITU constitution will be considered for adoption by the ITU's upcoming Plenipotentiary Conference, to be held in Minneapolis from Oct. 12 to Nov. 6.

The current reforms deal with the rights and obligations of ITU members. Building a consensus from a highly diverse membership, including governments and the private sector from markets with different levels of development and competition, does not happen quickly.

The pace of this reorganization has itself been a cause of frustration for some reformers.

Speeding up standardization approval

But progress is being made. The ITU is developing fast-track alternatives to traditional study groups to speed up the process of standardization.

ITU 2000 recommended introducing a distinction between standardization approval by full-membership ballot and approval within study groups, not requiring a full vote.

It is emphasizing cooperation with regional groups like the European Telecommunications Standards Institute and industry forums, which are closer to their markets and tend to move faster.

''Each ITU section should find solutions that make sense for its activities, instead of being subject to a top-down set of rules,'' says Mr. MacLean.

Small companies are encouraged to be part of the process, with the lowering of membership fees and changes in rules that facilitate their participation.

Mr. MacLean is optimistic about the ITU's ability to adapt. ''Everyone wants to see us move faster,'' he says.

He himself embodies the changes that are happening in Geneva. He was hired in 1992 to take responsibility for strategic planning. ''I may have been the first person in any United-Nations-affiliated organization to take on such a role,'' he says.

Claudia Flisi