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PP-10 Newsroom: Backgrounders

The International Telecommunication Regulations: time for a revision?

The policy governing all international telecommunication services between countries rests on principles embodied in one relatively short document: the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). They represent almost certainly the oldest regulations of their kind in existence.

A successor to texts of the Union dating back to the days of telegraphic transmission and the formation of the ITU in 1865, the ITRs were ratified in their present form in 1988 at the ITU conference on the subject in Melbourne, Australia, when separate treaties for telephony and telegraphy were essentially merged.1

The ITRs themselves prescribe (in ten Articles) how international telecommunication services are defined and mediated between operators and service providers. For example, they provide for such issues as: traffic flows between operators, ensuring quality of service of international services, sufficiency of facilities, international routing, charging, accounting and billing between operators, the priorities that should be given to health and safety, and the avoidance of harm to networks and services. The provisions specifically acknowledge the role of mutual agreement between operators in providing and exchanging communication services to leave flexibility for commercial circumstances.

The industry explodes

Now under debate is the need for a possible revision or reinterpretation of the ITRs. According to some industry observers, the ITRs arguably set the framework for investment in, and the subsequent massive expansion of, international networks. In the background, deregulation has transformed the ICT community worldwide. Thousands of new service providers have appeared around the world, some 150 independent regulatory agencies have been created, the tidal wave of privatization has swept over the industry, meaning that most operators that were formerly state-owned (or the direct arm of government) are now competing as private companies.

In the foreground, mobile communications and Internet connectivity have grown beyond imagination. New applications extending well beyond voice have transformed the telecom landscape. And telecoms traffic of all kinds is increasingly mediated over networks as IP packets. The question is: can the ITR system continue to add value to the market as presently constructed or should it be explicitly revised to take account of the new developments over the past two decades?

The previous ITU Plenipotentiary Conference of 2006 in Antalya, Turkey, acknowledged that key factors in the market had changed. It also recognized that Member States’ evaluations of their policy and regulatory approaches to support the development of an Information Society might also require change, although it admitted that a prior review of the ITR system had not resulted in a consensus about how to proceed. The conference instructed the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector to begin a review of the ITRs 2.

Preparatory work, including work for and during this year’s ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, could provide recommendations for a potential conference that will highlight the issue, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), scheduled for 2012.

A specialist group, the Council Working Group to Prepare for the World Conference on International Telecommunications in 2012 (CWG-WCIT12) was created to report to the ITU Council in 2010 and 2011, to prepare a report for the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2010 and to prepare a final report for the WCIT in 2012.

Why change?

The ITRs are a binding treaty, ratified by 178 Member States of the ITU. While some Member States say that the ITR system has enabled the industry to flourish and worked well in terms of its oversight of international communications and would like to see the ITR framework remain unchanged with no new issues introduced, others would like to see revisions based on industry developments.

Some suggest that parts of the ITR operational provisions may either now be redundant or obsolete, and could be removed. Other views suggest they may be duplicated by other ITU treaty-level instruments such as the ITU Convention or Constitution and could be removed, or, if not duplicated, could be moved into such instruments or into ITU-T Recommendations.

Any option almost certainly requires careful consideration. Even if the ITRs were to be left unchanged, with no new issues introduced, some experts are also debating whether they should be interpreted as they would have been in the 1980s, or re-interpreted in light of the environment as it now exists. In some senses, the ITR debate also focuses attention on the dual, but different, provisions and approaches between the role of regulation in the telephony world on the one hand, and the Internet world on the other. As framed, the ITRs do not specify the technologies or means of connection, and it is likely that any future versions of the ITRs will also be technologically-neutral.

The debate suggests several issues:

  • How far can, or should, the Internet be accommodated within a regulatory system that was designed for the global telecommunications network? Should ITRs be adapted to cover more recent regimes?

  • What mechanisms should exist to curb abuse, particularly of resources such as routing, or numbering where service providers may disguise or suppress originating numbers, or otherwise practice deception, to obtain commercial advantage vis-Ó-vis other providers or to circumvent legitimate prohibition?

  • What – if anything – should be done in a regulatory context to reduce the high cost of telecommunications that still exists between some destinations?

  • Should the ITR system incorporate additional provisions such as cybersecurity protection, perhaps on the basis that ITRs already make reference to the prevention of harm to facilities and services?

1 The World Administrative Telegraph and Telephone Conference (WATTC-88) Melbourne, 1988

2 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2006, Antalya, Resolution 146

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Updated : 2010-10-14