Preparations are underway for the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT-12). In December, Dubai hosts a meeting of the United Nation's specialised agency for information and communications technologies. Its key objective is to review and update the international treaty that provides the legal basis for global communications.
The International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) were agreed in 1988 and came into force as a treaty-level agreement in 1990. They set out the principles governing international network connection and service provision. They address:
- Cooperation among national governments
- Ensuring priority for emergency communications
- Charges for traffic exchanged between carriers in different countries
The ITRs also promoted privatisation, competition and deregulation.
Coping with the new generation networks
Technology has transformed since 1988, and there is a pressing need for an updated framework – one designed to support the infrastructure needed for the proliferation of internet protocol (IP) based networks and increasingly data-hungry web-based services.
With demand booming worldwide, key technical issues include:
- Interconnection and interoperability
- Quality of service
- Convergence of voice and data services
However, those technical issues cannot be viewed in isolation. The economic landscape has also undergone radical change. Briefing and position papers prepared by the ITU working parties and 'Sector Members' (private companies, scientific and industry organisations, financial and development institutions and campaigning NGOs) raise fundamental questions about the ways in which network development can be funded, while meeting the ITU's objective of 'equitable and affordable access'.
The ITU's core approach assumes that governments and the private sector 'will play complementary but distinct roles. Governments establish sound regulatory frameworks, and the private sector provides the investment'. As preparations for WCI-12 progress, this has proved to be the key point of tension. The success of WCIT-12 will largely be determined by the balance it achieves between:
- Charging and accounting
- Taxation, and
- A 'human right of access to communications'
Of those, the concept of access to communications as a human right is the most striking of the new factors affecting telecommunications since the ITRs were drawn up in 1988. During a recent preparatory meeting in Brussels the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) captured the essence of the challenge:
"The current ITRs have been a great success and have allowed us to get where we are today in terms of internet growth. However, today's internet business models are becoming unsustainable in the face of an exponential growth in data traffic. We need to address the current disconnect between sources of revenue and sources of costs and decide upon the most appropriate way to do so.'
Regulation or competition?
In its contribution, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) warned against any significant shift in the balance between regulation and competition. The ICC argues: 'Pro-competitive policies should be used to achieve more efficient and balanced internet interconnection flows, rather than using the ITRs to support regulation that could suppress traffic flows and investment incentives'
The objective of WCIT-12 should, in the ICC's view, be to set out broad principles 'rather than mandating or encouraging new regulation, or addressing technical issues'. Straying into market-specific details would risk the ITRs becoming 'harmful or quickly outdated in this highly dynamic industry'.
Developing that point, the ICC advocates significant amendment or removal of the existing ITR rules for the establishment and settlement of accounting rate arrangements, pointing out that they 'date back to the time when most international traffic arrangements were negotiated by government-owned monopoly carriers, rather than by private operators on a commercial basis, as they are today'.
The ICC concludes: 'it is important not to prohibit market mechanisms which enable least-cost routing and other pro-competitive market mechanisms that serve as an important restraint on the level of international termination rates'.
Who pays for expansion?
WCIT-12 will bring together representatives of 193 countries, with each guaranteed an 'equal voice' in the negotiations and plenary sessions. This approach risks deadlock in the plenary sessions as it gives smaller countries the right to block resolutions – an issue regularly encountered in other UN treaty-level bodies such as the annual climate change summits.
For WCIT-12 the risk is perhaps at its greatest when considering the question of who pays for network expansion. The key battleground is inclusion within the ITRs of 'network exterdeveloping countries. Advocates consider that premiums would provide an effective and equitable means of transferring the burden of network expansion to developed countries. Opponents, including the OECD, argue that such measures would risk constraining network build-out, and would conflict with non-discrimination agreements in World Trade Organisation Agreements.
The road to Dubai
WCIT-12 takes place 3 – 14 December in Dubai. In the months leading up to the conference participants and pressure groups will develop and set out their arguments, aiming to form and consolidate interest groups for the negotiations themselves. Those preparations, and the outcome in December, are a matter of vital interest for the sector worldwide.nality' premiums, payable by operators in developed countries for call termination in developing countries. Advocates consider that premiums would provide an effective and equitable means of transferring the burden of network expansion to developed countries. Opponents, including the OECD, argue that such measures would risk constraining network build-out, and would conflict with non-discrimination agreements in World Trade Organisation Agreements.
The road to Dubai
WCIT-12 takes place 3 – 14 December in Dubai. In the months leading up to the conference participants and pressure groups will develop and set out their arguments, aiming to form and consolidate interest groups for the negotiations themselves. Those preparations, and the outcome in December, are a matter of vital interest for the sector worldwide.
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