Paris, 4 September 1996
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When I think about the purpose of this symposium - to draw a picture of telecommunication needs at the dawn of the twenty-first century - the first thing that comes to mind is the need to ensure that people everywhere in the world have access to at least basic communication services. This was the goal set for the ITU by the Maitland Commission in 1984. Today, it is still our most important goal as we approach the new millennium.
Quite a bit of progress has been made towards this goal in the last decade. There are a number of countries where universal access to at least basic telephone service is a reality, and has been for some time. There are many more countries and regions that are making good progress towards this goal, particularly in eastern Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific. Today, however, with just a little over three years to go towards our deadline for achieving universal access, we are still in a situation where somewhere between half and two-thirds of the people in the world have never made a phone call.
Of course, the telephone is not the only important telecommunications tool found in the world. Today, there are perhaps twice as many televisions sets in the world as telephones, and they are much more evenly distributed between developed and developing countries. New technologies will make it possible to turn television into a 2-way, interactive medium, and we should not ignore this possibility. However, both telephone and television systems are limited as communications media when we compare them to computers, and only an infinitesimal proportion of the world's population currently have access to the computers and systems like the Internet.
What all of this means is that those of us in the communications business still have a lot of work to do before we can begin to talk seriously about the "global information infrastructure" - and to be taken seriously when we talk about the "global information society" of the twenty-first century.
But we should not be too hard on ourselves.
The second purpose of this symposium is to address the techniques and resources needed to satisfy mankind's communication needs, and to spotlight the role of satellites in this environment. Here, there is definitely good news to report. We are at the beginning of a revolution in satellite communications, a revolution which has the potential to make the dream of universal access a reality in the twenty-first century - universal access not just to basic voice and data services, but to a full range of broadband multimedia services.
These new satellite systems are famous for their acronyms. Today, some so-called "Little LEOs" are already in operation, providing monitoring, paging and low-speed data services. In the next three to five years, they will be joined by constellations of their bigger brothers, the so-called "Big LEOs", MEOs and HEOs, and the range of available services will be expanded to include voice, fax and higher speed data. In five to ten years' time, future generation fixed and mobile satellite systems e.g. Mega-LEO's will provide broadband services and what has sometimes been called "Internet in the sky" services. And let us not forget the international and regional satellite systems that are in place today and already offering many of these services.
Does this mean that there are no real problems that stand in the way of achieving the goal of universal access, if not exactly by the first of January in the year 2000, at least not too many years after that? I would like to be able to answer this question in the affirmative; but unfortunately, I cannot do so.
It is clear that the technologies required to achieve universal access are already here, or soon will be. What is not so clear is how they will be implemented. Unlike previous international satellite systems, these new "global satellite systems" are mostly privately owned. Instead of being regulated through international agreements between State Parties, they will be licensed and regulated by each and every country in which they want to operate and offer their services. Rather than acting as capacity wholesalers or "carriers' carriers", the services of the new generation of global satellite operators will be retailed directly to end users, who will expect to be able to access these services using small, hand-held or easily transportable terminals wherever they are, without having to get a licence or pay customs duties every time they cross a border.
Sorting out the policy and regulatory issues that stand in the way of implementing global satellite systems is a major challenge for the ITU - and our sister organization, the WTO. Global mobile personal communications by satellite, or GMPCS, will be the subject of our first-ever World Telecommunication Policy Forum, which will be held in Geneva from 21-23 October, this year. During these three days, we hope it will be possible for ITU government and private sector members to agree on a cooperative course of action which will facilitate the early introduction of global satellite services, and the consequent benefits to mankind. I hope to see all of you there for what promises to be a most interesting event.
But even if the regulatory obstacles to the implementation of global satellite systems can be cleared away, other issues will surely remain. Will the services offered by these systems be affordable for developing countries? Or will the dream of universal access continue to remain an unaffordable dream for the majority of the world's population? What will be the impact of these services on the telecommunications industry? Are they complementary to terrestrial networks, as the system operators claim? Or will they too be caught up in the increasingly competitive telecommunications marketplace? And what will be the impact of future generation broadband satellite services on economic, social, cultural and political structures? Will they lead us all to the "global village"? Or reinforce existing differences between the world's peoples?
As we look to the future and contemplate the wonders of technology, we should not forget to think about these basic, human questions either here today and tomorrow, during the course of this symposium, or when we return to our offices and go about our business. All of us carry a heavy responsibility. Let us resolve to act wisely and well, in the long term interests of mankind.