WTO


Looking for something in my files, I found this conference paper that is almost 10 years old. The organizers pressured me to write it but then they did not keep their side of the bargain and publish the proceedings. It requires a few hours of work to make it up to date. The basic structure is fine, and could even be used to assess the WTO compliance of other countries that have made telecom commitments. Pity it never saw the light of day.
Preparing for a TV interview on spectrum, I checked the website of the Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka to see if I could see the National Frequency Allocation Table (NFAT) or the Master Register, which used to be publicly available from 2003. It was not available for perusal on the TRC website. This is a legal requirement deriving from Sri Lanka’s international commitments under the GATS, the relevant article being: Any procedures for the allocation and use of scarce resources, including frequencies, numbers and rights of way, will be carried out in an objective, timely, transparent and non-discriminatory manner. The current state of allocated frequency bands will be made publicly available, but detailed identification of frequencies allocated for specific government uses is not required. It appears the we are in violation of our WTO commitments.
Twenty years ago, when NAFTA was still a novelty, Patrick Hadley and I looked at the interface of trade and communication policy. I recalled this when I was asked a question during a TV talk show about safeguards for culture in trade agreements. Looks like the issues we wrote about are becoming mainstream: China’s notorious online controls have long been criticized as censorship by human rights groups, businesses, Chinese Internet users and others. Now they have earned a new label from the American government: trade barrier. United States trade officials have for the first time added China’s system of Internet filters and blocks — broadly known as the Great Firewall — to an annual list of trade impediments.
Just before WCIT, Hosuk Lee and I did a rush job that looked at the possibility that the ETNO-inspired efforts to extract rents from OTT players such as Facebook may violate GATS commitments. Now the issue has bubbled up on another front: When China and other nations block the websites of U.S. companies but the United States doesn’t respond in kind there’s a strong argument that creates an unfair trade barrier, said Andrew McLaughlin, former White House deputy chief technology officer. He cited the example of Facebook, which is blocked in China, and Renren, a Chinese social networking service colloquially known as the “Facebook of China.
Ian Scales of Telecom TV has dubbed the WTO rules as the final nail in the coffin of ITU occupying Internet and ETNO’s demand of SPNP. Praising Rohan Samarajiva and Hosuk Lee-Makiyama for detonating “The well-timed blast” with their joint publication – Whither global rules for the Internet? The implications of the World Conference on International Telecommunication (WCIT) for international trade – Ian said: It points out that as part of the WTO agreement 82 countries unilaterally agreed to “open up and refrain from discriminatory measures in a so-called reference paper on basic telecommunications.” Most countries also agreed not to restrict the most common forms of Internet services and signed up to a moratorium on tariffs and fees on data transmissions (known as the WTO e-commerce moratorium). Those undertakings therefore run smack-bang into proposals such as ETNO’s, as well as Arab and African states’ proposals for re-establishing a version of the old accounting rate regime (designed for telephone call revenue sharing) for Internet applications.
Internet sprouts innovation and steers growth. Mankind has never been so passionately generous and caring for any technology. Vinton Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, Linus Torvalds, Salman Khan and others gave away their precious achievements to enrich Internet for universal good. Primarily a cheaper option to communicate has now become the unmatched driver of prosperity worldwide. Internet is the oxygen of global trade and commerce.
I had treated the claims by the Secretary General of the ITU that the ITU had facilitated the telecom boom with mild amusement. But in the context of the upcoming Dubai WCIT, amusement is not perhaps the best reaction. Let us begin with the actual claim on the ITU website, more nuanced than that of the Secretary General: While the ITRs were a compromise at the time, they turn out, in retrospect, to have been instrumental in facilitating continuing privatization and liberalization of telecommunications markets. These trends were further facilitated by agreements made in the Global Agreement on Trade in Services in 1994 (Annex on Telecommunications) and in 1996 (Reference Paper on Basic Telecommunications Services). The ITRs contained a key provision in Article 9, Special Arrangements.
Among the PiRRC contributions to the Pacific Broadband Forum just concluded in Nadi, Fiji, was a panel discussion on regulatory independence. In addition to the practicing regulators of Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu, they invited some observers to participate. Preparing for the panel, I looked through some old slidesets and came up with this structure. Did not use the slidesets, but the structure was useful. What surprised me was how easily I switched from the role of disinterested scholar to former regulator.
Though not part of LIRNEasia’s funded research, we have kept an eye on, and engaged with, issues related to services trade liberalization, partly because ICTs form a critical element of international services trade and the success of telecom reform exemplifies what can be achieved by liberalization of Mode 3 trade in services. In debates around the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between India and Sri Lanka, I recall someone raising the question as to why I was not advocated the optimal solution of multilateral agreements to liberalize trade. I answered “Doha is dead and SAARC is comatose, this is the best we got.” Now finally it appears that the death of Doha is being officially recognized. Contrary to the declarations made at the G20 summit meetings in earlier years, the world leaders seem to have finally given up on the possibility of concluding the trade talks within the parameters on which they had launched them as a single undertaking.
Sri Lanka, with many others, agreed to abide by the Regulatory Reference Paper that forms part of the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services. Clause 6 of the Reference Paper states: Any procedures for the allocation and use of scarce resources, including frequencies, numbers and rights of way, will be carried out in an objective, timely, transparent and non-discriminatory manner. The current state of allocated frequency bands will be made publicly available, but detailed identification of frequencies allocated for specific government uses is not required. This was the case in Sri Lanka until the new website for set up (inaugurated by a high official of the ITU which supports transparency and other good things). The Master Register of Frequencies that was on the website, is no longer accessible through a button; when one does a search the register that comes up is dated 2003.