Suggestion for the ITU as it heads into its 150th year: Refocus

Posted on December 13, 2014  /  1 Comments

I was asked to participate in panel that posited a series of questionable propositions as its starting point. “Regulation was becoming less relevant; ITU had done a good job building regulatory capacity; now it needed to find new things to do” is a rough paraphrase.

We have now fully emerged from an environment where service and carriage were tightly related, and where regulation was self-contained within a single organisation. New dimensions today include some where the ITU is a participating entity in a broader formal regulatory canvass, and some where facilitation relies on multi-stakeholder freewheeling market forces such as are associated with the Internet. This represents a challenging cultural change for the ITU to establish its active participating role. In the past much goodwork has been done by the ITU in developing regulatory capacity, especially in developing countries, and in traditional ITU areas of responsibility in standardisation and radiocommunications. The ITU should now spread its involvement into other areas in step withits emerging participating roles. A renewed balance between regulation – facilitation – participation is moving more from left to right in this sequence of roles, and whilst some control is given away greater role responsibility for the ITU now means coping with a greater non-regulatory aspect to its activities. The facilitation role has been very successful and new regulators have been educated by ITU activities in formal regulatory subjects. Those regulators and policy makers are now in need of support to deal with the full range of challenges of the modern environment.

So I had to say something useful while also challenging these propositions. I had been coming to ITU Telecom from 1999. Before that I had taught about the ITU and heard the war stories about the midnight marathon that yielded the workable compromise of the 1988 ITR revisions. So I knew that regulators started coming to the ITU only in the 1990s and that even now many of them come under the sufferance of the Ministries that are the real powers as far as the ITU is concerned. I did not think this was the right place to get into the dysfunctions associated with the permanent campaign mode that characterized the ITU under the previous leadership.

My key message was that the ITU should refocus. Do what only it could do. Work with other agencies to leverage its strengths.

My first point was that it was important to distinguish between the different audiences addressed by the ITU: policy makers (Ministries that are the full-voting members of the ITU), regulators and industry. Having worked in government both in policy, implementation and regulation, I focused my comments on the first two groups.

Over time, ITU had been subjected to the usual forces that come into play in large organizations. It had drifted from its core competencies. The result was mission creep. If it begins to chase after every new ICT application and issue, it will be in deep trouble. ICT is now everywhere and in everything. This is the case for ITU’s members, the Ministries, as well.

The Ministries have to stop thinking turf and start working with other Ministries and private sector entities. ICT applications in health and agriculture cannot be driven by telecom ministries. Their new role has to be that of collaboration. This has to be mirrored at the international level too. ITU must start working with other IGOs, and step away from the silo mentality.

I illustrated the above with an example: our work with UN ESCAP on an information superhighway for the Asia Pacific that seeks to bring down prices and improve quality of broadband through the building of mesh networks for backhaul that include both terrestrial and maritime components. We went to UN ESCAP because this where international cooperation on highways and railways in managed. Now international backhaul is a priority of UN ESCAP. It’s not that we did not try to bring ITU into the conversation several years ago. We hope they will come in even now.

The above example also illustrates the importance of refocusing on the international. When we are talking about a terrestrial-maritime backhaul mesh that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic, any single country can hold it hostage. This requires government level commitment. Who better to get it than UNESCAP and ITU? This project also requires more submarine cables. For some reason we do not understand, no effort has been made to reduce the transaction costs of landing submarine cables. Every landing has to be uniquely negotiated. In a refocused ITU, perhaps this could be a priority action area.

What should ITU pull back from? What is not international and is within countries should not be done by ITU. For example, training regulators or even providing platforms for experience sharing by regulators is better done at the regional level. ITU’s record in this kind of work has been patchy. I did not say it at the panel, but we must rationalize the demands on the time of regulators. Isn’t it better that regulators travel shorter distances to discuss issues with people in their own regions than to travel across the world like they do now?

When asked for actions that ITU can take to assist regulators (in my formulation, also policy makers) my next suggestion was indicators. Increasingly, our ability to measure progress (or lack thereof) with regard to policy objectives or regulatory strategies is being challenged. The current ITU indicators are at breaking point. In all of South East Asia there appear to be more Facebook users (a reliable indicator on which Facebook’s advertising rates are based) than the number of Internet Users as reported by the ITU. The skills components included in the ITU composite Index, ICT Development Index, is highly rudimentary.

You can see how much of my ideas found acceptance by looking at the summary from the Moderator, Professor Tim Unwin.

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