The instantaneous transmission of news and information across the globe was made possible in the 1830s by the invention of the telegraph, the invention that gave rise to the word "telecommunications". The electric telegraph machine was created through efforts of Morse, Wheatstone and Cooke, and telegraphy began in England in 1837.

In the early days of cross-national communication, messages were encoded on a telegraph machine and sent to the bordering country for transcription, usually by a national post office, and then sent to their destination. Messages could not be sent directly from a source in one country to a receiver in another country because a common code was not used.

The need for technical standardization was recognized by Prussia and Austria and in October l849, these two countries made the first attempt to link telegraph systems with a common code. One year later, an agreement between these two countries, Bavaria and Saxony created the Austro-German Telegraph Union. The success of this first union gave rise to additional unions such as the International Telegraph Union, then later to the International Radio Conferences, and finally, in 1865, the to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Today, the ITU is the sole regulating institution with power to regulate the transfer of data throughout the world.

In 1947 the ITU became an agency in the United Nations. According to a 1982 ITU Convention report the purposes of the ITU are as follows: (1) to maintain and foster rational use of telecommunications and to offer technical assistance; (2) to promote and improve efficient use of technical equipment and operations; and (3) to coordinate and promote a positive world environment for the achievement of the above goals.

As the speed of telecommunications inventions increases, so too does the importance of the ITU. The evolution of telecommunications technology during the twentieth century is so great that telecommunications effects almost every aspect of life and the role of the ITU continues to extend into new areas of concern. The three major areas of jurisdiction for the ITU are: (1) distribution of radio and satellite services and assignments (2) establishment of international telecommunications standards; and (3) regulation of international information exchange such as telephony, telegraphy, and computer data. The ITU also plays a vital role in telecommunications assistance for developing countries.

One hundred and sixty countries within the United Nations (UN) have representatives in the ITU. Each of these countries gets one vote on ITU decisions. The general meeting of the ITU is held once every few years and is called the Plenipotentiary Conference. The chief objective of this conference is to review and revise the ITU Convention, which is the governing document of the Union. The one-country, one-vote format often leads to voting blocks based on country alliances, and creates the political nature of the ITU.

The voting blocks and the tenets of the new World Information Order threaten the existence of the ITU. Many developing countries in the UN want to break the dominant flow of information from Northern industrialized countries to Southern developing countries. The Northern industrialized countries want to continue the "free flow" of information while the developing countries in the South want a balanced flow to ensure control of socio-cultural development.

A second aspect that threatens the existence of the ITU is the fact that the speed at which technological changes occur is greater than the ITU's international standards process can accommodate. Thus, several other standards organizations have developed such as the T1 Committee of the Exchange Carriers Standards Association in the United States, the Telecommunications Technology Committee (TTC) in Japan, and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). These regional standards organizations (RSOs) offer a more homogeneous membership than the ITU which makes the standardization process quicker.

In response to the RSOs, the ITU has streamlined its standards process and has restructured its voting rules so that decisions can be made by ballot between Plenipotentiary Conferences. It remains to be seen whether the ITU will maintain its status as the world's telecommunications regulatory body.

-John Tedesco


Courtesy of ITU


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See also Standards and Practices; Television Technology