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date: 26 June 2022

The International Telecommunication Union: Origin and Rolefree

The International Telecommunication Union: Origin and Rolefree

  • Francis LyallFrancis LyallEmeritus Professor of Law, University of Aberdeen


Integral to modern life, electrical telecommunications have to work within the constraints set by the unalterable laws of physics. Transborder systems require that technologies and protocols be harmonized if there is to be interconnectivity and interoperability. International agreements on wired services date back to the 1850s. Separate bodies set up to deal with international communications in east and west Europe, were brought together in 1865 in a single international body, the International Telegraph Union. Wireless communication—radio—presented the additional problem of broadcast signals interfering with each other. From 1906, it was regulated on the basis of principles that still undergird the modern arrangements, but no formal international body was established for the purpose. Instead, radio was dealt with by a sequence of plenipotentiary conferences. The separate regimes for wired and wireless services were united in 1932 when the International Telecommunication Union was established.

The 193-member union is the UN specialized agency that deals with all forms of telecommunication. It underwent a major reconstruction in 1992–1994 in order to cope with modern technologies and now works within a four-year cycle. Its institutions are its plenipotentiary conference, a council, a secretariat, and three sectors responsible, respectively, for development, standardization, and radio communication. Each of these last three has a bureau and holds international world and regional conferences, and is aided by a large number of specialized study groups. In radiocommunication, that sector supervises the operation of the Radio Regulations, in which a Table of Allocations prescribes which radio frequencies are used for what purpose and maintains a Master International Frequency Register, which records the active frequency assignments made by states to transmitting stations under their control. Its work has increased markedly with development of high-frequency systems and the proliferation of satellite systems serving various purposes.


  • International/Global Communication


Electrical telecommunications are so integral to modern life that they are taken for granted. Before they were invented, telecommunication—communication at a distance—used beacons, flags, and semaphore or messages were carried physically. The telegraph transformed communications. The telephone followed. Soon thereafter, wireless communication—radio—came on the scene. But modern communications technologies do far more than pass interpersonal messages. Digital services, whether by microwave link or the Internet, both control and facilitate the operation of our modern society in many ways.

The right to regulate telecommunications is one of the sovereign rights of a state and arises from its inherent jurisdiction over its territory, its nationals, and, on occasion, extraterritorial matters. However, the laws of physics mean that international electrical telecommunication services require states to cooperate and agree to compromises. This is achieved through the 193-member International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Its history involves a long sequence of treaties that reflect both political history and developments in technology. The ITU is not concerned with the content of telecommunications, only with its technical aspects and, lately, with spreading access to telecommunication services throughout the world.

Basic Considerations

Electrical communication takes place within parameters set by the laws of physics, which cannot be repealed or changed by international agreement or national legislation. Different technologies can be invented to make use of the physical properties of radiation, but, for communications to operate internationally and “talk” together, states must arrive at compromises between their national systems.

There are two forms of electrical communication: wired communication and wireless communication. Wired communication requires compatibility in the use of electrical current and equipment. Wireless communication, exploiting an invisible resource (Leive, 1970; Levin, 1971), presents both similar and different problems. The development and regulation of the two modes of electrical telecommunication, followed different paths.

Wired Communication

An electric current, passed down a wire, can be coded to pass a message either by its interruption (cf. Morse code) or its modulation (telephone).

The telegraph had many attractions. Swift, reliable, and accurate messaging attracted business, governmental, military, and security interest. However, the first telegraph systems differed in their technologies, as well as in their operational protocols. As a result, the early state telegraph systems, each being territorially confined, were mismatched. Interstate messaging was awkward, with messages having to be transcribed at state borders and then keyed in to the next cable system.

In 1849, Austria and Prussia agreed to establish telegraph links between Vienna and Berlin using the railway route between the two capitals. However, because the Austrian and Prussian systems were incompatible, cabling for both had to be laid. Within weeks, agreements among other “German” states followed, and in July 1850 a number of states, already bilaterally linked, signed a Convention at Dresden creating an Austro-German Telegraph Union (104 CTS 165). The contracting states agreed to introduce uniform national legislation as to the operation of telegraph services and to meet regularly to deal with matters of common concern. In particular, the Convention provided for tariff zones with the pricing of international messaging to be based on distance. Further conferences were held in Vienna in 1851 (106 CTS 371), Berlin in 1853 (111 CTS 125, 148, 478), and Munich in 1855 (Codding, 1952, p. 14). Of these, the Vienna meeting was particularly significant because it called for the physical connection of the networks involved. That meant that new cable connections of appropriate dimensions and capacity had to be laid and their technical characteristics and coding protocols agreed to before construction, let alone before operation.

By 1857, the provisions governing the Austro-German Telegraph Union were therefore contained inconveniently in four separate documents, the agreements of Dresden (1850), Vienna (1851), Berlin (1853), and Munich (1855). Accordingly, at Stuttgart in November 1857, these were consolidated (118 CTS 5), and a major feature of international telecommunication agreements appeared. Matters considered unlikely to be modified were put in a Convention, and two additional separate documents were adopted to deal with more mutable provisions. “Regulations” dealt with a variety of matters including the relationship between the Austro-German Telegraph Union, the services it provided, and the general public. “Service Instructions” contained the technical prescriptions for the actual telegraph systems and their operation.

In the west, France led, entering into bilateral agreements with Belgium in 1851 (105 CTS 365), Switzerland in 1852 (109 CTS 195), Sardinia in 1853 (109 CTS 483), and Spain in 1854 (112 CTS 281). Mimicking the Austro-German developments of 1850, these five then came together in Paris in 1855 to form a West European Telegraph Union (114 CTS 139). The Paris agreement drew on the provisions of the 1850 Dresden arrangements, including the concept of tariff zones and of pricing dependent on distance from zone to zone. The Western European Union soon grew, establishing a wide-ranging Convention between a significant group of states not based on a common Germanic root but including major colonial powers which had telegraph links to their overseas possessions. It would be wrong, however, to think that the two unions, the Austro-German and the West European Telegraph Unions, were mutually exclusive and self-contained. Bilateral agreements between individual members of each were frequent. But a problem was emerging. Dependent on its routing, a particular telegram might be subject separately or successively to the regimes of various bilateral and multilateral arrangements.

The International Telegraph Convention and Regulations, Paris, 1865

In 1865, France convened a conference, inviting representatives from Austria, Baden, Bavaria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Hamburg, Hanover, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Spain, Sweden-Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, and Württemberg. Although the jurisdictions of the invited states extended to a significant portion of the land territory of Europe, not all the parties to the Berne or Stuttgart Conventions were invited. The United Kingdom was not invited since its telegraph networks were at this stage still in the hands of private companies.

What was hoped for was uniformity in tariffs, codes, routing, and operational matters that would bring together the European networks at least in their international traffic, even if quirks remained in internal national systems. The result was an International Telegraph Convention that was soon ratified or adhered to by many states (130 CTS 198). Article 1 called for the creation of an international network of dedicated cable connections to be constructed under the best available practical conditions and in numbers sufficient to provide a rapid transmission of messages. Service between important cities and towns of the contracting states was to be permanently maintained, day and night, without interruption. Major telegraph stations were to be open to the public, and “limited service” stations could not close down until all the international messages that had been received. There was to be a public right of correspondence by telegraph, together with the secrecy of communications. Coded messages and messages containing numbers were allowed in official state messages and for private messages sent internationally provided that the state of initial transmission and the state of reception so allowed. In short, notwithstanding “secrecy,” a state could prohibit encryption and intercept and read suspect messages. Anarchism and revolutionary movements may have been feared: 1848, the “Year of Revolutions,” was still of recent memory.

Telecommunication incurs a cost, which is met through charges. Indeed, the charges and taxes exigible formed a major element of most of the telegraph conventions, both multi- and bilateral, of the time. The 1865 Convention therefore contained a number of provisions for that purpose. A base comparability was set between the currencies concerned, with the French gold franc as the unit in which international tariffs were to be calculated. A standard minimum charge applied to messages of up to 20 words, with an additional charge for exceeding that limit, and a “word” might have up to seven syllables. Messages in code or by the use of numbers to indicate words were also dealt with.

Using language still to be found in the ITU documents, the 1865 Convention was “completed” as to international services by detailed rules set out in annexed Service Regulations. These, coming into force with the Convention, were to remain in effect throughout its currency but were alterable by the common consent of the parties at any time. France acted as the secretary to the new Union, receiving suggestions for alterations to the Convention and notifying consent to any modification. To facilitate the new European international networking, all parties were to inform each other of the internal administration of their networks and of any network problems.

Membership in the Union soon grew, as did the volume of international telegraphic traffic. Further revisions to the Convention were made in 1868 (136 CTS 222, 292), and an “International Bureau of Telegraphic Administrations” was created as a permanent international organ to administer the practicalities. This was to be situated in Bern, Switzerland, and financed by the members of the Union, each voluntarily selecting one of six classes of units, the value of a single unit being calculated when the total of the units subscribed was known and divided into the projected running costs of the International Bureau. That pattern of financing has persisted.

The International Telegraph Convention, St. Petersburg, 1875

The next landmark conference of the Telegraph Union was that of St. Petersburg in 1875. The resulting International Telegraph Convention was short, containing permanent institutional and legal provisions as to the availability of the international services (148 CTS 416; 57 LNTS 201). The International Bureau and its voluntary financing by the selection of a unit class were continued. Service Regulations dealing with tariffs, taxes, and operational matters were annexed. No reservations to the Convention were permitted, though the Regulations were subject to regular review and amendment.

Over time, the Service Regulations became more complex but retained their basic form. They were considered by administrative conferences at intervals over the next 30 years, in London in 1879 (154 CTS 255), Berlin in 1885 when the telephone was brought into the provisions (165 CTS 212), Paris in 1890 (172 CTS 378), Budapest in 1896 (183 CTS 159), London in 1903 (193 CTS 327), and Lisbon in 1908 (207 CTS 89), at which arrangements to deal with radiotelegraphy and wired telegraphic systems were agreed to. Thereafter, because of the political circumstances of the time, no general administrative telegraph conferences were held, and it was not until 1923–1924 that the International Telegraph Union formally resumed its activities. In the meantime, telegraph and telephone traffic had increased in volume and in technology. To help the Union cope with these developments in 1925, a Paris conference created an International Consultative Committee on the International Telegraph (CCIT) and an International Consulting Committee on the Telephone (CCIF) by amendment to the relevant Service Regulations, not to the International Telegraph Convention itself (57 LNTS 201). Further conferences were held in Brussels in 1926 and 1928 (88 LNTS 347). However, in the background the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, and France had already agreed in 1920 that a single international body would be the best way to deal with the regulation of all international telecommunication services, whether wired or wireless (Codding, 1952, pp. 111–112).

Wireless Telecommunications—Radio

Radio waves were first identified by Hertz in 1886, and the possibility of wireless communication was soon apparent. Marconi and others developed radio systems in the mid-1890s. The existing cable systems sought to block this upstart competition, so the initial principal market for radio was where cable could not serve—ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore communication. Several radio systems were marketed and competition between them caused trouble as they refused to interact with each other, or to accept messaging carried by rival systems.

The International Radiotelegraph Convention, Berlin, 1906

In March 1902, Heinrich, the then Crown Prince of Germany and brother to Kaiser Wilhelm, who had just been “royally” entertained in the United States by President (Teddy) Roosevelt and others, journeyed home on the German registered S.S. Deutschland. As they were sailing along the English Channel, the Prince wanted to telegraph his thanks back to his hosts, but the Marconi stations on the English south coast refused to accept the message as it was sent using the “Slaby-d’Arco” (Telefunken) system. The direct result was that in August 1903, a Preliminary Conference on Wireless Telegraphy was held in Berlin to identify particular problems of the new medium (194 CTS 46). At that time, radio transmissions could only be broadcast. Signals might overlap and interfere with each other, transmitters might use excessive power, and transmitting and receiver equipment might be very rudimentary. It was clear that the use of the new facility had to be organized internationally to alleviate these problems, and the conference made various recommendations. Three years later, in November 1906, at a second Berlin conference, 27 states adopted an International Radiotelegraph Convention together with Service Regulations (203 CTS 101). Both the Convention and the Service Regulations were amendable by common consent by either a plenipotentiary or an administrative conference, although in fact no administrative conference was ever held. Requirements set in the Regulations were based on principles that remain basic to the regulation and use of all radio services. Two wave-bands were allocated to specific services (general public and long-distance correspondence), harmful interference was to be avoided, the minimal signal power necessary was to be used, and the best available technologies were to be employed for both transmission and reception.

The obvious model of the Telegraph Union notwithstanding, the Berlin Convention did not establish a formal body as the Union. Indeed, although some refer to the “International Radio Union,” technically that is an error. No such permanent organization ever existed. However, there was to be an International Bureau to collect and publicize data on radio matters, together with suggestions for the revision of the Convention or Regulations. But no “radio” bureau was constituted. Instead, the International Bureau of the Telegraph Union was asked to take on the task, its costs being met in the same way as in the Telegraph Union, the voluntary selection by each state of a class of units to be contributed.

Very soon, finding “free” spectrum in the lower-frequency ranges became difficult, but technical progress continued to make more radio spectrum available. The loss of the RMS Titanic in 1912 underlined the potential role of radio communication. Later that year, a London conference of the Union wrote into a new International Radiotelegraph Convention duties as to safety of life at sea and adopted a Table of Frequency Allocations that added to the number of identified radio services, while still limiting them to designated frequencies (1 LNTS 135; 216 CTS 244). However, compliance with that table and its successors was not made mandatory until after World War II.

World War I had a major effect on various technologies, particularly aviation. Both sides made significant technical advances in radio. At the outbreak of the war, the United Kingdom cut the German North Sea cables, so Berlin resorted to radio to keep in touch with the rest of the world, vastly increasing the power of its radio stations and the range of frequencies used. The Allies also improved their radio technologies. Parallel developments occurred elsewhere, with private enterprise in the United States, in particular, uninvolved in the war until April 1917, being free to experiment and introduce new services including entertainment broadcasting (Barnou, 1966; Briggs, 1961; Smulyan, 1994).

In Washington, in 1927, extended allocations of frequency bands were agreed for existing and new services, and two important innovations were made (84 LNTS 97). First, a formal and official international registration system was set up to record the frequency assignments by states when licensing transmitting stations, so that later assignments could avoid interfering with existing assignments. As a matter of fact, the International Bureau of the Telegraph Union had been issuing an “International List of Radio Stations of the World” (the “Bern List”) together with a list of their call-signs, as early as 1907. However, the Bern List was both unofficial and imperfect since there was no duty on states to inform the Bureau of new assignments. The solution adopted in 1927 simply extended the use being made of the International Bureau to run the new registration system. Second, an International Technical Consulting Committee on Radio Communications (CCIR) was established to study “technical and related questions pertaining to” radiocommunication (Article 17), thus mirroring the Telegraph Union’s Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committees (Stewart, 1931).

The next and final plenipotentiary conference for radio was held in Madrid in 1932.

The International Telecommunication Union

Since its creation, the ITU has passed through three major phases. Prior to World War II, it was finding its feet, but the international politics of the time did not help. After the war the ITU was reconstructed in order to become one of the new UN family of specialized agencies. That structure proved increasingly unable to cope with a huge increase in membership as the colonial empires dissolved, and as telecommunications became more and more complex. Finally, the current arrangements were adopted in 1994.

The role of the ITU is to provide a forum through which sovereign states agree to principles and rules for the conduct of international telecommunications and supervise compliance with them. The ITU is now one of the most “complete” global international organizations. It underwent considerable reconstruction from 1992 to 1994 in order better to fit the demands that modern technologies were placing on it. At that stage, “development” was formally added to its purposes, and that has proved important in the improvement of telecommunications facilities and services, particularly in and for the newer states of the world. However, its major function remains dealing with technical and technological matters.


By the late 1920s, it was clear that a single union to regulate global telecommunications was favored by many. In 1932, the Telegraph and Radio Unions held separate plenipotentiary conferences simultaneously in Madrid, updated their Regulations, and then came together to create the International Telecommunication Union (151 LNTS 4). The new Telecommunication Convention abrogated all previous telecommunication treaties between its parties, their regulations, and the institutions (Arts. 1 and 8). Separate sets of Regulations on the wired and wireless services “completed” the provisions of the new Convention, member states having to accept at least one of these (Article 2.1–2.2). International public correspondence by telecommunication was identified as a public service (Article 22). Secrecy of communications was guaranteed (Article 24), subject to public security, public order, and decency (Article 26). Further development of the Union was to be by way of plenipotentiary and administrative conferences (Article 18).

The Madrid Convention did not create a formal continuing “body” or institution. However, there was to be a single International Bureau for administrative purposes. Like its predecessor the new ITU Bureau was financed by members each voluntarily selecting a class of contributory units (Article 17). Consultative committees were sanctioned (Article 16) and, particularly in relation to radio, duties were imposed as to acceptance of messages from all systems (Article 34), the avoidance of interference (Article 35), priority of distress calls (Article 36), and the suppression of false calls (Article 37).

The 1932 Convention came into force on January 1, 1934, and in the later 1930s several Radiocommunication, Telegraph and Telephone conferences were held. However, progress was slow, and becoming even slower as European history unwound.

International Telecommunication Convention, Atlantic City, 1947

In 1947, a plenipotentiary conference was held in Atlantic City. It had two purposes: first to revise the constitutional arrangements, and second to deal with radio. The outcome was a new Convention, and a major revision of the Radio Regulations.

There is nothing like war for triggering progress in technology. World War II produced major expansion and change in telecommunications technology, particularly in radio where the Table of Allocations in the Radio Regulations was largely ignored by the new transmitting stations. Immediately prior to the Atlantic City conference, new Radio Regulations were agreed by an administrative radio conference and these were rubber-stamped by the plenipotentiary meeting (194 UNTS 3). Their detail and complexity speak eloquently of the problems being dealt with. The Telegraph and Telephone Regulations were not revised at Atlantic City. That was left to an International Telegraph and Telephone Conference held in Paris, 1949 (International Telecommunication Union, 1949).

Because the ITU was to join the UN family of specialized agencies, the Atlantic City Convention (193 UNTS 189) created a permanent organization with international personality that fitted the normal UN pattern and was acceptable to it (30 UNTS 316). From 1947 to 1994, therefore, the ITU had a federal structure (Lyall, 2011, pp. 71–126). Three bodies met at intervals—the Plenipotentiary Conference, Administrative Conferences dealing with the different communication modalities, and the Administrative Council, which annually reviewed the operation of the Union. Five permanent organs carried out the day-to-day business of the Union, the General Secretariat, the International Frequency Registration Board, the International Radio Consultative Committee (CCIR), the International Telegraph Consultative Committee (CCIT), and the International Telephone Consultative Committee (CCIF) (Article 4).

An important innovation was the creation of a permanent and independent International Frequency Registration Board (IFRB) (Article 6). This had three tasks, advising on the use of the radio spectrum, bringing up to date the registration of existing frequency assignments, and the operation of a new Master International Frequency Register which was to record all assignments to licensed radio stations whose transmissions might cause transboundary interference. Its members, who had to be of different nationalities, and without financial interest in any branch of communication, were elected by each general administrative radio conference as “custodians of an international public trust,” and not as representative of their home states or region. This status/requirement was repeated in the Radio Regulations, where the duties of the Board were further spelled out. However, RR Article 10 made crucial additions to the requirements for membership of the IFRB. Members were to be “thoroughly qualified by technical training in the field of radio and shall possess practical experience in the assignment of the frequencies” (1947 RR Article 10.3.2). Further, they were to perform their functions on a worldwide basis, and in the interest of the most effective use of the radio spectrum, reaching their decisions “on frequency assignment solely on an engineering basis” (1947 RR Article 10.3.3). Such requirements persisted until 1994.

Eventually change was forced by technology and growth in ITU membership. The 1947 Constitution had retained divisions that originated in the separate histories of the wired and wireless services. The only structural change during the next 40 years was the fusion of the consultative committees for the telegraph and the telephone in 1956 to form a single Consultative Committee on the Telegraph and the Telephone (CCITT). As time passed and technologies developed, the organization became unable to act swiftly, or adequately, to cope with new developments. Telecommunications had become extremely complex, particularly in radio, and this was aggravated by developments in outer space. The dissolution of the colonial empires brought a huge increase in ITU membership. Many emergent states felt that the organization was unresponsive to their needs, and some lacked the skills properly to engage with/in ITU business. At seven to eight years, the gap between major conferences had become too long. Finally, manufacturing industries and the providers of telecommunications services were increasingly clamant in their need for certainty. Simplification and efficiency became essential.

The Current ITU

By the time of the Nice Plenipotentiary Conference in 1989 it was clear that the ITU had to alter its structures and procedures (International Telecommunication Union, 1985, 1989b, p. 2). The mechanisms of the ITU were obsolescent, some already obsolete. The Nice Conference took some steps toward revising the ITU but recognized that more radical surgery was necessary (International Telecommunication Union, 1990). A high level committee, created to review the ITU structure and functioning, reported in April 1991 (International Telecommunication Union, 1991). By then, only six states had ratified the 1989 Nice Final Acts, so the Administrative Council decided to hold another plenipotentiary conference before the Nice arrangements would come into force.

The 1992 Additional Plenipotentiary Conference agreed to major structural changes (1825 UNTS 1). These were further revised by the 1994 Kyoto Plenipotentiary Conference, and the new arrangements came into force in 1996 (International Telecommunication Union, 1994). The previous unitary convention was split into a Constitution and a Convention. Responsibilities were allocated to three new sectors. The restructuring has been a success. There has been no major structural change since 1994, although some important tweaks were adopted at Minneapolis in 1998 (2133 UNTS 253). Minor improvements were made at Marrakesh in 2002 (2260 UNTS 224), Antalya in 2006 (1825 UNTS 2016), and Guadalajara in 2010 (2825 UNTS 82). The Plenipotentiary Conferences of Busan in 2014 (International Telecommunication Union, 2014), and Dubai in 2018 (International Telecommunication Union, 2018), made no changes to either the Constitution or the Convention. There are no current proposals for further simplification of the ITU.


Since 1994, the ITU Constitution and Convention have been amended, not readopted. That could make working with them difficult. However, the informal Collection of the basic texts of the International Telecommunication Union adopted by the Plenipotentiary Conference, issued after each plenipotentiary conference, provides a “clean text” of both (International Telecommunication Union, 2019a). It also contains those Decisions, Resolutions and Recommendations that are in force and lists those that have been abrogated. The Constitution and Convention are referred to, respectively, as CS and CV. To each provision a number is added in the margin to facilitate reference but is not altered to reflect the removal of a provision. When a provision has been altered or suppressed, the marginal annotation indicates which plenipotentiary conference made the change. Decisions, Resolutions and Recommendations are also numbered consecutively, and their numbering sequences are also retained if a provision be abrogated. In the case of an amendment the title is changed to indicate which conference made the change.

The Preamble to the ITU Constitution “fully” recognizes “the right of each State to regulate its telecommunication” but also confirms the agreement of the participant states to restrict their rights in the interests of the purposes of the Union (CS 1).

The basic ITU documentation is a hierarchical arrangement of the Constitution (CS), a Convention (CV) and the Administrative Regulations—the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) and the Radio Regulations (RR). These last are themselves also international instruments with treaty status (CS Article 4.3-4 (31–32); CS Article 54 (215–223). However, in contrast to the CS and CV, both sets of Regulations are amendable by administrative conference (CS Article 4.3 (31)). ITU member states are bound to abide by these four documents and to require any operating agency which they license to observe ITU rules in all international services, and in activities that may cause international radio interference (CS Arts 6.1–6.2 (37–38)). The single exemption is that, with exceptions for what are in effect civilian uses, states retain freedom in regard to military radio installations (CS Article 48 (202–204)).


There are two forms of ITU membership: state membership and associate membership. Only states may be full members of the ITU (CS Arts. 2a–2c (21–23)). Currently it has 193 states as members, the same number as the UN, though the correspondence is not exact. The Vatican is a member of the ITU but not of the UN, and Palau is a member of the UN but not of the ITU. In addition, the “State of Palestine” has observer status (PP Res. 99 (Rev. Busan, 2018)). Taiwan, a major provider of telecommunications equipment, is not a member but is allocated a country code (Lin, 2004). Associate membership is available to nonstate entities whose home state authorizes their participation in one or more of the sectors (CV Article 19 (228–241E)). The more than 800 associate members include persons and private entities such as equipment manufacturers, service operators, and academic institutions.


The 19th-century system of financing the Union through members voluntarily selecting a class of contribution has been retained (CS Article 28 (151–170); CV Article 33 (468–487)). This arrangement has been criticized. First, as a result, approximately one-tenth of the members pay 90% of ITU costs. Second, were the ITU to adopt a contributory system based on gross domestic product (GDP), the method by which UN agencies (other than the ITU and UPU) are financed, some of the ITU’s recurrent financial problems would be alleviated.

ITU Structure

The ITU consists of a plenipotentiary conference, a council, a secretariat and three sectors through which much of the ITU work is channeled.

Plenipotentiary Conference

The Plenipotentiary Conference, composed of all state members and meeting every four years, is the supreme organ of the Union (CS Article 7.1 (40) and Article 8 (47–59D)). It may amend the CS and CV, sets general policy and budgets, adopts a strategic plan for the next quadrennium, gives general directives as to staffing, and examines the Union accounts. It elects member states to serve on the council, as well as the secretary general, deputy secretary general, the directors of the sectors, and the members of the Radio Regulations Board (RRB).

The Council

The main provisions as to the ITU Council are in CS Article 10 (65–72) and CV Article 4 (50–82). The council meets annually in Geneva, although an additional session may be held if necessary. Its work is facilitated by a council “troika” consisting of its immediately past, present, and future chairmen. Its members are elected with “due regard to the need for equitable distribution of the seats on the Council among all regions of the world.” To meet this requirement, five ITU regions are designated, the Americas, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Northern Asia, Africa, and Asia and Australasia. Currently with 48 members, council membership may not exceed 25% of the total number of state members, and there is an expectation that regional and subregional areas facilitate a rotation of members. Any member or associate member may send an observer to council meetings.

The council is the governing body of the Union. It oversees compliance with the CS, CV, and the Administrative Regulations and implements the decisions of plenipotentiary and other conferences. It supervises the management of the Union, approves staff and financial regulations, decides on the execution of conference decisions with financial implications, and takes any action necessary for the functioning of the Union.

Permanent Officers

The secretary general, deputy secretary general and the directors of the three sectors must all be of different nationalities and may be reelected only once to the same post, whether or not the second time is for a term consecutive with the first. Due regard is given to an equitable geographic distribution and the “paramount consideration” of “the necessity of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity.”

The detailed responsibilities of the secretary general and the general secretariat are laid out in CS Article 11 (CS 73–77), and CV Article 5 (CV 83–105). The secretary general is the legal representative of the Union. The secretary General coordinates the activities of the Union, implements the strategic plan, and takes all actions required to ensure the economic use of Union resources.

The Sectors

The 1992–1994 reconstruction of the ITU did away with the CCITT, CCIR, and IFRB and divided their responsibilities among three sectors, that deal with development (ITU-D), standardization (ITU-T), and radiocommunication (ITU-R). The plenipotentiary conference elects the director of each sector, who may be reelected only once. Each sector has a bureau and operates through a variety of working groups, study groups, advisory groups, conferences, and assemblies whose cycles are intercalated with that of the plenipotentiary conference (CV Article 3 (23–49)). ITU-R and ITU-T also provide technical assistance to ITU-D (CV Arts 12.4 (183) and 15.4 (207)). Every state member is entitled, but not required, to be a member of a sector, and each sector has a number of associate members who also take part in its work through study and working groups. Working methods and the results of the radiocommunication and standardization assemblies and world development conferences must be compatible with the basic instruments of the Union (CS Chapter IVA (145A)). Study groups are constrained in their work and their ability to make recommendations, particularly where there are regulatory and policy aspects and/or financial implications (CS Ch. IVA (145A) and CV Article 22.5 bis.4 (246D–246H)). The sectors are financed by state members voluntarily selecting a class of units, normally one-fifth of what they contribute to general funds, while associate members pay lesser fees that reflect the intensity of their involvement in a sector.

The Telecommunication Development Sector

Developments in technology have led to a demand by the “less-developed” states to not be left behind. Created in the 1994 reconstruction, ITU-D is the main agent in meeting such concerns, although the other sectors have a role to play. In fact, for some years prior to the reconstruction the ITU had been running programs to help developing countries establish good telecommunications facilities, but the promotion of technical developments and providing technical assistance to developing countries are now included among the formal purposes of the ITU. In addition, ITU-D runs courses for administrators and advises on regulatory practice.

ITU-D consists of a bureau under a director, with duties laid out in CV Article 18 (216–226). While ITU-D does much of its work through study groups (CV Article 17 (214–215B)), courses and workshops, an important activity is the telecommunication development conference. There is also a Telecommunication Development Advisory Group (CV Article 17A (215C–215K)). This group reviews progress and recommends priorities, programs, and operations. ITU-D conferences do not produce Final Acts (i.e., treaty-level agreements) but adopt resolutions, decisions, recommendations, and reports of varying cogency and compliance. The financial implications of proposals must be taken into account and conferences may not adopt resolutions and decisions that might involve expenditure above limits set by the plenipotentiary conference.

The sector has been significant in developing telecommunications accessibility, affordability, and infrastructure particularly in the developing countries. Major results have been the adoption of Declarations and Action Plans at successive World Telecommunication Development Conferences (WTDC) held in Buenos Aires, 1994; Valletta, 1998; Istanbul, 2002; Doha, 2006; Hyderabad, 2010; Dubai, 2014; and Buenos Aires, 2017, the Final Reports of which are available from the ITU. In broad terms, there has been compliance with conference recommendations. Developments have also occurred through the implementation of the outcomes of successive meetings of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), an ITU initiative that began in 2003–2005. Last, ITU-D supervises an ITU Academy, in which courses on the working and regulation of telecommunications are offered.

The Telecommunication Standardization Sector

Standardization is necessary for electrical telecommunications to interconnect and interoperate. While there are other international standardization bodies of varying importance, ITUT, (the designator ITU-T derives from the French text) is devoted to standardization in all forms of communications and telecommunication. It is governed in accordance with CS Arts. 17–20 (104–117) and CV Arts 13–15 (184–207) and 19–22 (228–254). The need for standard international procedures and practices, for operating protocols and compatibility between equipment, with due respect for the laws of physics, gave the initial impetus for the early telecommunication agreements. Fundamentally, the position is no different today. The introduction of digital signaling and fiber-optic cabling and the use of higher frequencies in radio that require freedom from interference have increased the importance of standardization. Telecommunication systems must work. Manufacturers want assurance that their products will sell. Occasionally, the question of a “standard” may be left to determination by the marketplace, but other questions are better settled by discussion and agreement.

The responsibilities of ITU-T cover technical, operating, and tariff questions. Through it, recommendations are made with a view to standardization on a worldwide basis. Standards adopted as part of the ITU Administrative Regulations are legal rulings. Pre-1992–1994 ITU Recommendations and Regulations remain in force until amended or departed from. Even so, the process could (and can) be slower than society really needs. Accordingly, in 2000 an “alternative approval” system was set up to provide a fast-track system by which informal approval of new “standards” can be relatively quick. Now governed by ITU-T A.8, “alternative approvals” are not formally binding, but their existence has considerably increased the speed at which ITU-T reacts to swiftly developing technologies.

ITU-T is assisted by a Standardization Advisory Group (CV Article 14A (197A–197I)). This reviews priorities, programs, operations, financial matters, and strategies for ITU-T activities. It also supervises the work of study groups, deals with matters assigned to it, and reports to the director and the ITU-T Assembly.

World Telecommunication Standardization Assemblies (WTSA) are convened every four years with the possibility of an intercalated additional conference if necessary. A WTSA deals with specific matters related to telecommunications (CV Article 13 (184–191D)). Questions to be studied, on which recommendations may be issued, may be generated within the sector, or referred to it by the plenipotentiary conference by other conferences or by the council. Steps are being taken to improve the role of ITU-T and its effectiveness, including closing gaps in standardizations between developed and developing countries.

International Telecommunication Regulations

Separately, ITU-T has responsibility for the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs). The ITRs are part of the Administrative Regulations that complement the CS and CV, and share their status as international treaties (CS Article 4.3-4 (31–32); CS Article 54 (215–223) (CS Art. Unfortunately there are now two active sets of ITRs. Both deal with the operation of telecommunications in general, interconnection and interoperability, routing, quality of service, and the settlement of accounts for communication services. One set was adopted in 1988 by a World Administrative Telegraph and Telephone Conference at Melbourne (International Telecommunication Union, 1989a, p. 1; Lyall, 2011, pp. 175–178). The other was adopted at Dubai in 2012 (International Telecommunication Union, 2013). Because the Dubai text includes provisions that might affect the operation of the Internet and raises questions of message content, a significant number of states were unwilling to endorse it. New Articles 5A (41B) and 5B (41B) introduce duties as to Internet traffic and content (Hill, 2014). Eighty-nine of the 193 ITU members signed the Dubai Final Acts, and fewer have ratified them. Accordingly, the 1988 ITRs text remains operational for the dissentient majority. This failure at Dubai is worrying. It would be unfortunate were the portfolio of agreements arrived at through the ITU to splinter. It is good that Resolution 146 of the 2018 Dubai plenipotentiary conference as to the “Periodic review and revision of the International Telecommunications Regulations” has put the matter under active review.

The Radiocommunication Sector

In radio, the ITU pursues the same objectives as the Berlin radio conferences of 1903 and 1906. The functions and structure of ITU-R, its bureau and working methods are set out in CS Articles 12–17 (78–103) and CV Articles 7–12 (112–183). The sector is to ensure “the rational, equitable, efficient and economical use of the radio frequency spectrum by all radiocommunication services, including those using the geostationary satellite orbit, and to carry out studies without limit of frequency range” (CS Arts. 12 (89–92) and 44 (195–196)). Radio frequencies and any associated orbits are “limited natural resources [to] be used rationally, efficiently and economically” in accordance with the Radio Regulations (CS Art. 44.2 (196)). What is sought is the prevention or mitigation of “harmful interference,” the use of minimum power to provide the desired service, and the employment of the best available technologies so that the adequate frequency tolerances are obtained and the spectrum bandwidth occupied is minimised (CS Art. 45 (197–199)). To achieve these objectives has become more urgent as the digitization of radio and the use of high and extremely high frequencies for ground and space systems have increased. Major parts of the ITU-R’s responsibilities therefore relate to the RR, and the maintenance of the MIFR. These are interrelated duties. The sector study groups, which meet regularly and are open to states and the associate members of the sector, play important roles in the attainment of the ITU-R purposes. Study groups do not take account of general economic considerations, and can take economic factors into consideration only when comparing technical or operational alternatives. Matters currently under study include the use of the radio-frequency spectrum in terrestrial and space radiocommunication, the geostationary and other satellite orbits, the characteristics and performance of radio systems, the operation of radio stations, and aspects of distress and safety radiocommunications. In addition, there is a formal Radiocommunication Advisory Group (RAG). Membership of the RAG is open to all member states, representatives of sector members, and the chairmen of study and other groups (CV Art. 11A (160A–160I). Meeting annually, it advises the bureau director, reviews the sector priorities and strategies, and monitors and guides study groups.

The Radio Regulations and the Master International Frequency Register

As part of the ITU Administrative Regulations, the Radio Regulations (RR) have full treaty status (CS Article 5; CS Article 54). Their provisions are dealt with by world or regional conferences. For the purposes of radio frequency allocation RR 5.2 divides the world into three regions, (roughly, Region I, Europe, Africa, and Russia; Region II, the Americas; Region III, Iran, Pakistan, India, China and east Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands south of the equator) their boundaries being set out in RR 5.3–5.9. In addition, account is taken of the African Broadcasting Area, the European Broadcasting Area, the European Maritime Area, and the Tropical Zones (RR 5.10–5.21). A subregion, consisting of two or more countries in the same region, may also be provided for (RR 5.22). The RR regions are different from the five ITU regions designated for constitutional purposes, for example, in the composition of the ITU Council.

World radiocommunication conferences (WRCs) are meetings of representatives of states and are normally held every three to four years (CV Article. 7 (112–128)). A WRC revises the RR and deals with questions of a worldwide character, though not necessarily reviewing the whole of the radio spectrum at any one conference. It can instruct the RRB (outlined “Radio Regulations Board”) or the sector bureau, put matters on the agenda of future world conferences, and refer questions to the Radiocommunication Assembly, which meets before a WRC. The general scope of the agenda of a world conference is established four to six years in advance, and the final agenda established by ITU Council “preferably” two years in advance of the conference. A WRC agenda will also include any matter so directed by the plenipotentiary conference.

Regional radio conferences (RRCs) adopt or revise provisions of the RR for a particular type of broadcasting in the region concerned and may include, for example, an “allotment plan” (e.g., the European Broadcasting Plan). A RRC can only consider matters on its agenda (CV Article 9 (138)).

Both WRCs and RRCs are normally facilitated by recommendations and proposals from preparatory meetings of groups of states, and by the reports of Radiocommunication Assemblies (RAs). These, convened prior to regulatory conferences, provide the technical basis for the conference work. An RA considers the reports of study groups and issues recommendations on questions adopted by its own procedures, or referred to it by a plenipotentiary conference, by any other conference, by the council or by the RRB. Thus the report of the 2019 RA convened prior to the 2019 WRC, contributed to the Conference Preparatory Meeting report on technical matters submitted to that WRC.

It has to be said that tensions have arisen in the meetings of both WRCs and RRCs. Decisions are not always based solely on technical and scientific factors. Security considerations may play a role in the positions adopted by participants. More patently, commercial considerations have also been increasingly present. Indeed, some delegations, particularly from the developed states, have been accompanied by many advisers from private service providers, and much formal and informal lobbying occurs. Finally, political considerations can be present. In particular, the developing countries, in the exercise of their sovereignties, seek to ensure that they are not left behind. Their objectives will be further considered in the final section of this article, “Comment and the Future.”

The RR have two purposes, the allocation of frequencies and the protection of services. Section IV of RR Article 5 contains the Table of Allocations in which segments of the radio spectrum are “allocated” for use on a worldwide or a regional basis. A frequency band may be “allocated” to one or more services, and either on a primary or a secondary basis, the primary service taking precedence should there be conflict. Exceptions are set out in “footnotes,” which are as authoritative as the provision of the main text, and also are on a primary or secondary basis. An “allotment” may be made to a particular region or group of states for a particular purpose, for example, to permit a regional broadcasting plan where particular frequencies, signal strength, and/or transmitter location may be denoted for particular broadcasting stations. RR Appendices 23, 26, and 27 contain allotment plans for particular maritime and aeronautical services. RR Appendices 30, 30A, and 30B deal with fixed satellite and broadcast satellite systems. Further complexities have come with terrestrial moves from analogue to digital signal, the use of very high frequencies that provide a signal clarity previously impossible, and the spread of mobile communications, including handsets that now can cope with the reception and transmission of reams of data.

The protection of an assignment is dealt with through other RR provisions and procedures. The “assignment” of a frequency to a particular radio station is the sovereign prerogative of the state having jurisdiction over its operator. However, where use of a frequency is likely to affect other countries RR procedures come into play to avoid “harmful interference,” or to reduce interference to tolerable levels. Broadly, a state notifies the ITU-R Bureau of its intention to make an assignment and provides basic information of the intended use. The notification is published by the bureau, bringing it to the attention of all states and operators. The bureau itself examines the notification for conformity to the Table of Allocations. It also calculates whether the proposed assignment would cause or receive “harmful interference” to or from existing registered assignments. The result is a “favorable” or an “unfavorable” finding. In the latter case, the notification is returned for revision. The most frequent correction required is to avoid “harmful interference,” and often involves consultation with any other affected state mutually to “coordinate” assignments, or to agree to a degree of tolerable interference. In that connection RR 1.166–169 defines “interference,” “permissible interference,” “accepted interference,” and “harmful interference.” If there is no problem, or once any problem has been dealt with, the assignment is entered in the MIFR. Thereafter, it has priority status, other states being required to take it into account when considering making subsequent assignments. The ITU-R Director assists in the resolution of complaints and disputes.

Except in certain instances where services are planned (e.g., for a regional broadcasting plan), spectrum is taken up on a “first-come, first-served” basis. While this helps in “the rational, equitable, efficient and economical use of the radio frequency spectrum by all radiocommunication services” (CS Article 12.1.1 (78), an objective reaffirmed in CS Article 44.2 (196)), it can mean that later-comers may find it difficult to satisfy their requirements. This has been a particular problem in the development of the use of space. Some call for “engineering the spectrum,” arguing that spectrum use should be completely planned to be more equitable for all. However, such a development seems unlikely, not only because agreement on the total revision of the Table of Allocations is well-nigh impossible. “First-come, first-served” also opens the possibility that an ITU state member may seek to derive income by acting as an agent for commercial interests, or by being less rigorous than others in its supervisory role. Apart from “Radio Luxembourg,” which has been running since 1933, this has arisen most recently with developments in space. But not all states may possess the ability properly to do “due diligence” in order to comply with ITU rules and supervise and control the activities involved as required by space law. The world has had too many problems with the concept of the “flag of convenience” not to want to avoid the intrusion of such into the efficient use of space.

There have been changes in the requirements for services using the higher radio frequencies as we have become more and more reliant on radio for telecommunication connections. To a limited extent, this area has been helped by the move in many countries from analogue to digital signals for TV services. This has freed up spectrum for use by other services. However, this has not been sufficient to meet the demand for spectrum. The fact is, as CS Article 44.2 (196) says, radio frequencies are “limited natural resources.”

The exploration, and more recently the exploitation of space has greatly increased the workloads of ITU-R, the WRC, and RRCs. Satellites require a high degree of clarity in the high-frequency signals they receive and transmit. However, signals from satellites in other than the geostationary orbit traverse the earth as it rotates, and terrestrial signals in the VHF and higher frequencies are not blocked by the Heaviside layer and therefore can affect or interfere with satellites in orbit. In fact, the ITU took early cognizance of the needs of space communications, the 1959 WRC amending the then RR to include definitions of a “space station,” an “earth station,” a “space service,” and an “earth/space service.” The situation is now far more complex, RR Appendices 30, 30A, and 30B now dealing with broadcast satellites and fixed satellite services. Correlatively WRC-19 (International Telecommunication Union, 2019b) made additional provision for mobile earth stations (earth stations in motion) such as those on aircraft, ships, and land vehicles, increasing the existing allocations to meet rising demand. It also adopted new provisions for high-altitude platforms.

As they are developed, mobile telecommunications will better connect people, things, data services, and all sorts of applications—the Internet of Things—in high-volume, reliable, and fast networked systems. WRC-19 (International Telecommunication Union, 2019b) saw a struggle for bandwidth allotments between terrestrial and space services, particularly as to fifth-generation systems frequency bands. To prepare for this future, WRC-19 allotted a total of 17.25 GHz of spectrum for 5G systems. As “generations” are further developed, more will be needed.

There is continuing competition for higher-frequency bandwidth between many space-related interests, including aviation, maritime services, telecommunications, global positioning and navigation services, varieties of remote sensing, and active and passive radio astronomy. This complexity has and will be added to by the deployment of large constellations of minisatellites. The occupation of spectrum and the requirements for MIFR processing of the intended plethora of low earth orbit satellites, however useful their product, has made the work of the ITU-R Bureau and its other mechanisms the more urgent and difficult. WRC-19 has adopted a new “milestone” system for new nongeostationary satellites and systems, which will be brought into operation in the next few years. WRC-19 Resolution 32 sets out agreed regulatory procedures for nongeostationary short-duration satellite systems that will help with the expected deployment of constellations of minisatellites in low earth orbits.

The Radio Regulations Board

The Radio Regulations Board (RRB) replaced the International Frequency Registration Board (IFRB). Governed by CS Article 14 (93–101) and CV Article 10 (140–147), it is an impartial voice in arguments as to frequency allocations and a source of disinterested advice on interference. It approves the Rules of Procedure for the registration of frequency assignments. It can be involved in disputes about assignments when the rules and discussions have not produced a solution. In the ultimate, the RRB can consider an appeal against a decision of the bureau on a frequency assignment. The RRB meets up to four times a year, with a quorum of at least two-thirds of the membership, but it can “carry out its duties using modern means of communication.” In general, the board seeks unanimity, but it can decide by a vote of at least two-thirds of its members. Proxy voting is not permitted.

The composition of the RRB is not more than the greater of 12 or 6% of the total state membership of the ITU. Elected by plenipotentiary conference with due regard to “equitable geographic distribution,” members serve part time, “not as representing their respective Member States, or a region, but as custodians of an international public trust.” RRB members are “thoroughly qualified in the field of radiocommunications” and have “practical experience in the assignment and utilization of frequencies.” Members must be of different nationalities and not that of the ITU-R Director. Each is to be “familiar with the geographic, economic and demographic conditions within a particular area of the world” and to be of the highest efficiency, competence, and integrity. Members are neither to seek nor receive instructions from anyone and may not intervene in decisions concerning their home state. Board members take part in an advisory capacity in radiocommunication conferences and two members, designated by the board, advise at plenipotentiary conferences and RAs.

As with all regulations and procedures, the possibility exists of dispute. ITU procedures call for negotiation and coordination. The RR and related ITU-R Recommendations are crucial in states arriving at acceptable solutions to problems. That said, the RRB has had to advise on an increasing number of interstate complaints. Apart from any separate agreement between affected states, the ITU has dispute settlement procedures that include arbitration under CS Article 56 (233–235) and CV Article 41 (507–518), and the never yet used Optional Protocol on the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes. There is, of course, the International Court of Justice. The Permanent Court of Arbitration has adopted “Optional Rules for Arbitration of Disputes relating to Outer Space Activities,” but whether those would adequately cope with a dispute about radio frequencies is uncertain. Disputes that clearly are strictly of a commercial nature are better coped with through the normal arbitration systems that have been established to meet such needs.

Comment and the Future

A half century ago, there was a possibility that some major states might depart from the ITU and make their own international telecommunications arrangements. The breakup of the colonial empires after World War II had resulted in many new states, all of which became UN members, joined the UN family of specialized agencies, and made their voices heard. They wanted control over their natural resources (United Nations General Assembly, 1962, 1974). Telecommunications, and their content, were also important to them and this was increasingly acknowledged. The 1973 ITU plenipotentiary conference showed the increasing influence of the developing countries (International Telecommunication Union, 1973). The 1979 World Administrative Radio Conference took 10 weeks. While much of the discussion related to technicalities, the requirements and demands of the developing countries were also the subject of major debate. In the meantime, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), in which the developing countries formed a majority, was considering the field of international communications. The outcome was the influential MacBride Report of 1980 (MacBride), and pressure by UNESCO for the implementation of a “New World Information and Communication Order” (NWICO). It also led to UNGA Resolution of limited effect on direct broadcasting from satellites (Lyall & Larsen, 2018, pp. 327–333; United Nations General Assembly, 1982). However, although there is much to recommend in these, because both could result in state control of news and other media, including the content of telecommunications, they have not been widely acceptable to states that believe in freedom of information.

That said, the pressures and arguments put forward by the developing nations have had their effect. In other realms, they have resulted in the provisions for sharing in the benefits of technological developments, for example, in the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982, 1994) and the Moon Agreement of 1979 (MA). In the ITU, the 1983 Nairobi Convention included language recognizing the world interest in good telecommunications, and clearly established that the ITU could and should act toward the development of telecommunications in the developing countries (International Telecommunication Union, 1983). That intention has been complied with through the following years, as shown by the inception and work of ITU-D, and by its inclusion among the Purposes of the Union (CS Arts. 1(b)–1(g) (4–9)).

Now, given the complexity and interrelationships of modern telecommunications, the breakup of the ITU seems unlikely. Our systems now consist of traditional terrestrial links and satellite links. Terrestrially, wired services include wire and, more recently, fiber-optic cabling. Wireless links are maintained through terrestrial broadcast and microwave networks now including 3, 4, and 5G systems. In addition, satellite systems provide services from radio-astronomy to global positioning to remote sensing and earth observation to private telecommunications to direct broadcasting. Only a single international agency can bring states together to cope with that complexity, and, provided that states by and large comply with the rules established through its mechanisms, satisfactory services are enabled. However, that there are those two sets of ITRs, Melbourne 1988 and Dubai 2012, does indicate that there are potential fissures in the Union.

Among the UN family of specialized agencies, the ITU is unique in that much of what it does is subject to the immutable constraints of the laws of physics. States must cooperate. Cabled services, whether wire or fiber-optic, must be compatible to be interconnected. Radio services can work best when mutual interference is avoided—a fact intensified by the move from analogue to digital signals and the increasing reliance on high and very high frequencies to connect the computer systems that are so important in the working of modern society. Compromises in standardization and radiocommunication must be well-grounded in the advice of experts. Indeed, there is an argument that the rules should be negotiated and set only by experts, but to bypass state sovereignty is impossible. The well-developed system of ITU study groups is therefore important, as are the assemblies held prior to a WTSA, a RRC, or a WRC. In addition, discussions and decisions are often facilitated by groups of states, advised by their experts, agreeing to common proposals prior to conferences, so that time is not unduly taken up in consolidating views.

A good feature of the ITU is that, in general, international politics do not figure in its processes and decisions. There have been few flare-ups. After World War II, Spain, excluded from the UN, was excluded from the ITU until 1955. Although technically remaining a member, when it adopted its apartheid regime, South Africa was excluded from ITU conferences from 1965 until 1995. Four of the six weeks of the 1982 Nairobi plenipotentiary conference were overshadowed by argument whether, in light of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon, Israel should be excluded from the Union. Then legal advisor Dr. Nöll advised that under the constitutional documents as they were, there were no powers to exclude, and action was confined to a condemnatory resolution. Other than such instances, international politics appear only in what increasingly look like standard Declarations and Reservations to Final Acts.

Control of Internet content is likely to prove an area of continuing argument, not to say dispute. However, as an organization basically attending to technical matters the ITU is not the place for such matters. But history may indicate otherwise. There is that example of the 2012 Dubai ITRs, unacceptable to a majority of member states because they introduce the possibility of interference with the operation and content of the Internet—a major divergence largely based on political differences. Cognate is the question of Cyber Security, which has recently had a rising profile. As far as the ITU documents are concerned, that should be settled as a matter of law dealt with in CS Article 37 (184–185). “Hacking” and similar efforts are increasingly reported in the media. Whether the ITU is the appropriate body to be involved with such questions is arguable, but most consider this is for national legislation to curb, if not to eliminate.

Another matter not yet resolved is whether the ITU should accept appointment as the supervisory authority of an international registration system for space assets if such a system comes into being. The UNIDROIT-sponsored “Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment” of 2001 is an umbrella or framework convention that applies in terms of individual protocols applicable, respectively, to aviation, rail, and space (2307 UNTS 341). A Space Assets protocol was agreed to in Berlin in 2012, but it is not yet in force (Goode, 2013; Sundahl, 2013). The matter was considered at the Dubai Plenipotentiary Conference in 2018, but, by its Resolution 210, the conference deferred a decision until the Protocol comes into force.

There are other concerns. The method of funding the Union is criticized. The system of voluntary contribution by selection of a class of units has resulted in some 10% of state members paying 90% of running costs. It is noticeable that over the years, most of the richer states have been reducing the size of their contribution, and it is also noticeable that contributions to the Development Sector are well below those to Standardization and Radiocommunication. Were the ITU to adopt the UN norm of contribution based on gross national product (GNP), its financial base would be more secure. However, that development seems unlikely. On the other hand, there is, perhaps, a balancing argument that voting weight should to a degree at least reflect contribution levels, subject to a suitable cap, as in some international satellite telecommunications organisations prior to their privatization.

Radio presents a variety of problems and concerns. The “rational, equitable, efficient and economical” use of the radio spectrum is not always achieved. Over the years, the number of alternative allocations and footnote exceptions to waveband allotments has increased. Commercial plans for the deployment of large constellations of mini- and microsatellites complicate such questions, and impose unsustainable burdens on the Radiocommunication Bureau. Maintaining an up-to-date MIFR will be difficult, entirely apart from the other problems they will bring. In both standardization and radiocommunication, pressures and lobbying from manufacturers and commercial service providers have increased over the years. A related unwelcome development is that, particularly in relation to space services, lawyers have been brought in by commercial interests to parse the meaning of some RR provisions. An example is the question of what “bringing into service” means in relation to the occupation of particular orbital slots. The relevant RR provisions (RR 11.44) have had to be redefined to make matters clearer.

Without international cooperation, and the correlative restriction of state sovereignty, our world would not function as well as it does. The ITU remit is huge. The materiél that it has to deal with is extensive. The separate interests of its 193 members have to be balanced. Efficiency has to bow to practicability. Accommodations and compromises have to be made within the constraints of the laws of physics. ITU history shows an erratic, occasionally productive, willingness to cope with problems. It is useful that the Final Acts of recent ITU conferences do not spring from negotiations solely undertaken during each meeting. “Common proposals for the work of the conference,” thrashed out between regional groups, and involving the parties particularly interested, are now usual. Such have significantly both facilitated and improved decisions, resolutions, and recommendations. Suffice it to say that the preparatory conference device allows conferences to do their job in two to four intensive weeks. However, particularly in radio and with the commercialization of space, it is regrettably clear that commercial companies do often significantly influence the positions taken by their home states. A particular proposal may be made, or rejected, for reasons of commercial profit rather than the best use of spectrum space. A current example is the question of the use of spectrum previously reserved for space purposes for terrestrial communications networks. That such spectrum is extremely valuable is shown by the high prices that service providers have been willing to pay in state spectrum auctions. That has spilled over into WRC and RRC debates, in what some characterize as “spectrum wars.”

Although the ITU was founded, and to a large extent remains, an organization that deals with questions of technology, it has massively aided technological development and the developing nations, particularly through the development sector (ITU-D) though the other sectors have assisted as well.

That said, not all ITU gatherings make decisions. The ITU has to be well informed as to what is required of its organs and procedures. Such cannot be entirely carried out through the formal meetings of the Union or of its sectors. The ITU is very conscious that it deals with complex matters involving acute questions of policy, national and international considerations, and rapidly changing technology. Information has to be both gathered and disseminated. A glance at the ITU website shows how hard it tries. The need for a forum in which information could be exchanged, interests canvassed, and strategies discussed has produced the World Telecommunication Policy Forum. Forums are convened irregularly and, although official, lie out with the formal ITU structures of the CS and CV. They are attended by state members, international institutions, commercial enterprises, and others engaged in the business of telecommunications. First proposed by the 1992 Kyoto Plenipotentiary Conference, forums have been held in 1996, 1998, 2001, 2009, and 2013 dealing with matters ranging from the technical to social matters, from interconnection to Internet problems. That their content has broadened is reflected in the title of the current PP Resolution thereanent, “World telecommunication/information and communication technology policy forum,” Resolution 2 (Rev. Dubai, 2018). Such exchanges of information and views is important, allowing the ITU more clearly to take into account emergent needs and see where international improvement is required. The ITU has also set up “focus groups,” open to anyone who, over a period of months, can discuss and suggest guidelines as to how the ITU may assist in the use of technology. The most recent established group is to concentrate on the operational and environmental efficiency of communications technologies. To disseminate knowledge otherwise, “ITU Telecom,” run on a commercial basis, organizes telecommunications exhibitions, sometimes associated with forums, to spread knowledge of technical developments and help states to keep their domestic technologies up to date. ITU-D is particularly assiduous in such matters.

That states might wholly transfer their powers to regulate telecommunications to the ITU is not an option. They will not. However, for international telecommunications to exist states will have to continue to cooperate and compromise. The experience and history of the ITU make it the only real option as the world forum for such matters. It will doubtless have to adapt further as new problems emerge, but its history shows that it will. In short, the ITU is a necessary institution, which, all things considered, does a good job.

Links to Digital Materials

Telecommunication treaties and other materials from 1865 are available through the ITU main website and the ITU History Portal. Other treaties are available through the UN Treaty Collection.

Further Reading

  • Abernathy, K. Q. (2003–2004). Why the World Radiocommunication Conference continues to be relevant today. Federal Communications Law Journal, 56(2), 287–298.
  • Codding, G. A. (1995). The International Telecommunication Union: 130 years of telecommunications regulation. Denver Journal of International Law & Policy, 23, 501–511.
  • Codding, G. A., Jr., & Rutkowski, A. M. (1982). The International Telecommunication Union in a changing world. Dedham, MA: Artech House.
  • Hofmann, M. (Ed.). (2015). Harmful interference from a regulatory perspective. Baden-Baden, Germany: Nomos.
  • Irion, K. (2009). Separated together: The International Telecommunications Union and civil society. International Journal of Communications Law & Policy, 13, 95–113.
  • Jakhu, R. S., & Dempsey, P. S. (2017). Routledge handbook of space law. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Lauria, R., & White, H. L. (1988). The law and regulation of international space communication. Boston, MA: Artech House.
  • Lauria, R., & White, H. L. (1995). The impact of new communication technologies on international telecommunication law and policy: Cyberspace and the restructuring of the International Telecommunication Union. California Western Law Review, 32, 1–30.
  • Leive, D. (1970). Regulating the use of the radio spectrum. Stanford Journal of International Studies, 5, 21–52.
  • Lyall, F. (1993a). The International Frequency Registration Board. Proceedings of Proceedings of the International Institute of Space Law, 35, 394–399.
  • Lyall, F. (1993b). The International Telecommunication Union reconstructed. Proceedings of the International Institute of Space Law, 36, 78–88.
  • Lyall, F., & Larsen, P. B. (2018). Space law: A treatise. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Stewart, I. (1928). The International Radiotelegraph Conference of Washington. American Journal of International Law, 22, 28–49.
  • Stewart, I. (1931). The International Technical Consulting Committee on Radio Communication. American Journal of International Law, 25, 684–693.
  • von der Dunk, F. (with Tronchetti F.) (Eds.). (2015). Handbook of space law. Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar.
  • Walden, I. (Ed.). (2018). Telecommunications law and regulation (5th ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Wallenstein, G. (1990). Setting global telecommunication standards. Boston, MA: Artech House.


  • Barnou, E. (1966). A tower in Babel: A history of broadcasting in the United States, to 1933. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Briggs, A. (1961). The birth of broadcasting. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Codding, G. A., Jr. (1952). The International Telecommunication Union: An experiment in international cooperation. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill.
  • Consolidated Treaty Series (CTS). (C. Parry, Gen. Ed.). (1969–1991). Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana.
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