The International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

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The International Telecommunication Union is the oldest of the intergovernmental organizations that have become specialized agencies related to the UN. In 1865, a convention establishing an International Telegraph Union was signed in Paris by the plenipotentiaries of 20 continental European states, including two extending into AsiaRussia and Turkey. Three years later, a permanent international bureau for the union was established in Bern, Switzerland. This bureau, which operated until 1948, was the forerunner of the present General Secretariat of the ITU. In 1885, at Berlin, the first regulations concerning international telephone services were added to the telegraph regulations annexed to the Paris convention. By the end of the nineteenth century, radiotelegraphy, or "wireless," had been developed, and for the first time it was possible to communicate directly between shore stations and ships at sea. Rival wireless companies frequently refused to accept one another's messages, however. In 1903, an international conference was called to consider the problem, and in 1906, in Berlin, 29 maritime states signed the International Radiotelegraph Convention, establishing the principle of compulsory intercommunication between vessels at sea and the land. The International Radiotelegraph Conference, which met in Washington in 1927, drew up for the first time a table of frequency allocations.


Two plenipotentiary conferences were held in 1932 at Madridone covering telephone and telegraph and the other radiotelegraph communication. The two existing conventions were amalgamated into a single International Telecommunication Convention (the word telecommunication signifying "any transmission, emission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds, or intelligence of any nature by wire, radio, optical, or other electromagnetic systems"). The countries accepting the new convention, which came into force on 1 January 1934, formed the International Telecommunication Union.

The International Telecommunication Convention of 1932 has been revised six times. The Plenipotentiary Conference of the ITU, meeting in Atlantic City in 1947, radically changed the organization to keep up with developments in telecommunication: for example, a new permanent organ, the International Frequency Registration Board, was created to cope with the overcrowding of certain transmission frequencies; and an agreement was drawn up under which the ITU was recognized by the UN as the specialized agency for telecommunication. The convention was further modified in certain respects by plenipotentiary conferences in 1952, 1959, 1965, 1973, and 1982.

In 1989, the Plenipotentiary Conference held in Nice created a High-Level Committee to propose wide-ranging recommendations about the role of ITU in a world totally transformed by the convergence of telecommunications and computer technology and the globalization and privatization of telecommunications providers. An historic Additional Plenipotentiary Conference was convened in Geneva in December 1992 to adopt far-reaching structural changes to the union and a thoroughly revised constitution and convention. The new constitution officially entered into force on 1 July 1994. However, the structural changes were considered so important to maintaining the organization's relevance in the rapidly changing technological world that the new structure was implemented as of 1 March 1993. The Constitution has been amended at subsequent plenipotentiary conferences.


The new Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union (Geneva, 1992) cites the following purposes for the union:

  • to maintain and extend international cooperation between all members of the union for the improvement and rational use of telecommunications of all kinds;
  • to promote and to offer technical assistance to developing countries in the field of telecommunications;
  • to promote the development of technical facilities and their efficient operation;
  • to promote the extension of the benefits of the new telecommunication technologies to all the world's inhabitants;
  • to harmonize the actions of members in the attainment of these ends;
  • to promote, at the international level, the adoption of a broader approach to telecommunications issues, an approach that includes other world and regional organizations and nongovernmental organizations concerned with telecommunications.


As of May 2006, ITU had 190 member nations. Although membership in the union itself is open only to sovereign states, the union's three sectors and their various conferences are open to telecommunications companies, scientific organizations, industrial groups, financing and development institutions, international al and regional telecommunication organizations, and the United Nations itself as well as its specialized agencies. Indeed, the 1992 constitution makes it clear that the participation of private sector organizations in the union's work is encouraged. In the late 1990s, some 360 members (scientific and industrial companies, public and private operators, broadcasters, regional/international organizations) took part in ITU's ongoing standardization work.


The new structure of ITU combines the activities of its previous bodies into three "pillars" supporting the work mandated by the Plenipotentiary Conference: the Radiocommunication Sector, the Telecommunication Standardization Sector, and the Development Sector. Each sector's work is directed by international and regional conferences, supported by a bureau under the administration of a director. The bureau directors are assisted by "Advisory Groups" that are open to representatives of national telecommunication administrations, authorized organizations, and study groups. The Plenipotentiary Conference also elects the ITU Council, which acts as an intersessional administrative body guiding the work of the organization in the four-year intervals between conferences. The organization's General Secretariat, headquartered in Geneva, is administered by a Secretary-General, assisted by a Deputy Secretary-General as well as the directors of Radiocommunication Bureau, Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, and the Telecommunication Development Bureau. Yoshio Utsumi of Japan was elected ITU Secretary-General by the Minneapolis Plenipotentiary Conference (October 1998).

Plenipotentiary Conference

The supreme body of the ITU is the Plenipotentiary Conference, in which each member has one vote. Previously, it met at intervals of five or more yearsin Atlantic City in 1947, Buenos Aires in 1952, Geneva in 1959, Montreux in 1965, Torremolinos in 1973, Nairobi in 1982, and Nice in 1989. In 1992 the extraordinary Additional Plenipotentiary Conference met in Geneva to fundamentally revamp the organization. The first session of the Plenipotentiary Conference after the restructuring was held in Kyoto, Japan, in September 1994. The Plenipotentiary Conference convened in Minneapolis in 1998 and in Marrakesh in 2002. In 2006, the Plenipotentiary Conference was due to be held in Antalya, Turkey.

The Plenipotentiary Conference sets general policies for fulfilling the purposes of the union; receives reports on the organization's activities since the previous conference and takes decisions on those reports; establishes the budget in light of decisions taken by the ITU Council; fixes salary scales; elects member nations to the ITU Council; elects the secretary-general; the deputy secretary-general; the directors of the bureaus of the three sectors, and the members of the Radio Regulations Board; considers and adopts amendments to the constitution and the convention; concludes agreements between ITU and other organizations that may be concluded by the ITU Council. In general the conferences focus on long-term policy issues.

The ITU Council

The ITU Council (formerly called the Administrative Council) traces its history back to the New Jersey Plenipotentiary Conference of 1947. It is composed of 46 member nations elected by the plenipotentiary along a regional formula: the Americas have eight seats, Western Europe has eight seats, Eastern Europe has five seats, Africa has 13 seats, and Asia and Australasia has 12 seats. The council members hold office until the next plenipotentiary, at which time they may be reelected.

The ITU Council guides the work of the union between sessions of the plenipotentiary. It approves the budgets of the union and controls its finances. It is responsible for the coordination of ITU's work with other United Nations organizations.

The members of the ITU Council for 2002-06 were: Region A (Americas): Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Suriname, United States, Venezuela; Region B (Western Europe): France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey; Region C (Eastern Europe): Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Russia; Region D (Africa): Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda; and Region E (Asia and Australasia): Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Japan, Korea (Republic of), Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Vietnam.

The Radiocommunications Sector

World Radiocommunication Conferences

World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRCs) revise the radio regulations and any associated frequency assignment and allotment plans; address any radiocommunication matter of worldwide character; instruct the Radio Regulations Board and the Radiocommunication Bureau, and review their activities; and determine questions for study by the Radiocommunication Assembly and its study groups in preparation for future Radio-communication Conferences. WRCs are normally convened every two or three years.

Radiocommunication Conferences and Assemblies

Every two to three years the Radiocommunication Conference and a Radiocommunication Assembly meet to review and revise the Radio Regulations on the basis of an agenda adopted by the ITU Council. Radiocommunication conferences are open to all ITU member administrations and to the United Nations and its specialized agencies, regional telecommunication organizations, and intergovernmental organizations operating satellite systems. In addition, telecommunication operators authorized by their country to participate in the work of the Radio Sector are admitted to the conferences.

The Radiocommunication Assemblies provide the technical basis for the work of the conferences. The assemblies create study groups of experts and decide on the priority, urgency, and time-scale for study of specific issues. The study groups are made up of experts from both administrations and public/private sector entities.

Radiocommunication Bureau

The Radiocommunication Bureau, or BR, is the executive arm of the Radiocommunication Sector, and is headed by an elected director. The director of BR acts as Executive Secretary to the Radio Regulations Board, and is responsible for the coordination of the work of the sector. The BR provides administrative and technical support to radiocommunications conferences, assemblies, and study groups; records and registers frequency assignments and orbital characteristics of space services; provides advice to member states on the fair and effective use of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, and assists in resolving cases of harmful interference; prepares and edits publications developed within the sector; provides technical information, and works closely with the Telecommunication Development Bureau in assisting developing countries.

Radio Regulations Board

The Radio Regulations Board is a part-time, 12-member body of experts that approves the rules of procedure to register radio frequency assignments and equitable utilization of the geo-stationary satellite orbit. It also investigates complaints by ITU members about frequency interference, and formulates recommendations to resolve such problems. It holds up to four meetings a year in Geneva. The board members, elected at the Plenipotentiary Conference, serve as custodians of international public trust and not as representatives of their respective member states or region, hence they cannot be part of national delegations at conferences. The Radio Regulations Board replaced the former five-member International Frequency Registration Board (IFRB), which was a full time body.

Radiocommunication Advisory Group

The Radiocommunication Advisory Group (RAG) has the following duties: to review the priorities and strategies adopted in the Radiocommunication Sector; to monitor progress of the work of Study Groups; to provide guidance for the work of Study Groups; and to recommend measures for fostering cooperation and coordination with other organizations and other ITU sectors. The RAG provides advice on these matters to the Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau. Radiocommunication Assemblies may refer specific matters within its competence to RAG.

The Telecommunication Standardization Sector

World Telecommunication Standardization Assemblies

These assemblies are held every four years to approve, modify, or reject draft standards (called "Recommendations" because of their voluntary character). The conferences set the work program for the study groups that elaborate these recommendations. The Telecommunication Standardization Study Groups are groups of experts in which administrations and public/private sector entities participate. They focus on the standardization of telecommunication services, operation and performance of equipment, systems, networks, services, tariffs, and accounting methods.

Telecommunication Standardization Bureau

The bureau is headed by a director elected by the plenipotentiary. It prepares for assemblies and meetings and processes and publishes information received from administrations about the application of the International Telecommunication Regulations. This information includes international telephone routes, statistics, notifications, and operational bulletins. It also is responsible for updating the documents and data bases of the Telecommunication Standardization Sector.

The Telecommunication Development Sector

World and Regional Telecommunication Development Conferences

These conferences fix objectives and strategies for balancing worldwide and regional development in telecommunications. They serve as a forum for studying policy, organization, operation, regulatory, technical, and financial questions related to the needs of developing countries. A World Telecommunication Development Conference is held every four years and a number of Regional Telecommunication Development Conferences are held within that same period. The resolutions, decisions, recommendations, and reports of the conferences are submitted to the plenipotentiary. The development conferences direct the work of the Telecommunications Development Bureau. The conferences also set up study groups on issues specific to developing countries.

The Telecommunication Development Bureau

This body is the administrative arm of the Development Sector. Its duties and responsibilities cover a variety of functions including program supervision, technical advice, collection and processing of relevant information for publication in machine-readable and other formats. The bureau is headed by an elected director who organizes and manages the work of the Sector.

General Secretariat

The General Secretariat is at ITU headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. It handles arrangements for ITU conferences and meetings and maintains liaison with member states and with the UN, the specialized agencies, and other international organizations. It also carries out the ITU's extensive publication program. It is headed by the secretary-general. Yoshio Utsumi of Japan was elected ITU Secretary-General by the Minneapolis Plenipotentiary Conference in 1998.

The Secretariat also organizes an international commercial telecommunications exhibition called TELECOM, held in Geneva every four years. It also cosponsors regional telecommunications exhibitions with member administrations (Asia TELECOM, Africa TELECOM, Americas TELECOM, and Europa TELECOM). These trade shows feature a comprehensive display of telecommunication equipment and services, including digital transmission, switching technologies, and digital networks. In conjunction with TELECOM, ITU sponsors a FORUM which deals with emerging trends in telecommunications technology, administration, management, financing, research, and equipment supply.


The ordinary budget includes expenditures pertaining to the ITU Council, the Geneva headquarters, and the various conferences and meetings. The technical cooperation special accounts budget includes administrative expenditure for technical assistance to developing nations and is financed by the UNDP. The publications budget includes production costs of all publications and is self-financed through sales.

At each Plenipotentiary Conference, member countries choose a class of contribution. The lowest classes are reserved for countries designated least developed countries by the United Nations. The ordinary budget is then divided by the number of units assigned to each member. However, regional radio conferences require additional contributions.

All other organizations (private enterprises, international organizations, etc.) that take part in the work of the union's three sectors must also choose a contribution class; however, their units are 1/5th the value of the member countries' contributory unit. Separate contributions must be made for participation in any of the various conferences of the union.

The total budget for 200405 amounted to S fr 328,872,000.



In the early 1980s ITU members recognized that advances in technology were fundamentally changing the nature of telecommunications and the very principles upon which the union was founded. These fundamental changes were behind the restructuring of the union, which was completed in 1994. An understanding of these changes is fundamental to understanding ITU's activities in the rapidly evolving world of telecommunications.

From 1900 to the 1980s telecommunication was generally understood to mean essentially the transmission of voice telephone signals. Governments and the telecommunications industry shared easily communicable goals: provide telephone service for every business and home and arrive at international technological standards that would allow telephone connections between all countries. Until the 1980s telecommunication equipment technology evolved comparatively slowly, allowing enough time for ITU's international bodies to set standards without inhibiting the progress of technology development. In the area of pricing (tariffs) there was widespread acceptance that densely populated areas would produce enough income for telephone companies to cover their expenses for providing coverage for remote, sparsely populated areas.

In the 1980s technological advances in the digitization of telephone signals, soft ware control, component miniaturization, and sharply decreasing switching and transmission costs brought about an explosion in products and services that could now transmit not only voice, but also data, text, image, and video information. Telecommunications became less a stand-alone industry and more intimately connected with the computer industry. It could be said that the two technologies had "converged," fundamentally reshaping the way all kinds of information services could be delivered to people and businesses. Similarly, wired and "wireless" telecommunications also began to converge. Wireless systems (cellular telephones, for example) began to compete with existing networks at every level through terrestrial and satellite-based communications systems.

At the same time, the equipment supply industry was transformed by shorter innovation cycles and global marketing efforts. This drastically shortened the time available for consultation and adoption of international standards. Finally, the profitability ethic of the computer industry began to replace the universal coverage ethic of the telecommunications industry. Businesses began to demand cost-based pricing, which would reduce their costs in increasingly competitive global markets. However, the growth of cost-based pricing would effectively deny telecommunications to isolated or sparsely populated countries or regions, since they could never afford to pay enough to be as profitable as densely populated areas. In other words, the competitive environment produced "islands" of high telecommunication capability where profitable customers existed and "deserts" of low telecommunications capability where profitable returns could not be achieved.

This trend strengthened towards the end of the 1980s with the end of the cold war. An international consensus emerged that market-based economies were the most efficient way to deliver goods and services and promote economic growth. Previously, most of the world's countries had government-controlled telecommunications departments.

In the new atmosphere of deregulation and privatization, many state-owned telecommunications departments would become state-owned corporations, and perhaps eventually private corporations. Telecommunications companies in industrialized countries found their main opportunity for growth was to change from offering only domestic services to offering services region-wide or even globally, competing with the domestic services of other nations.

ITU's Secretary-General, Dr. Pekka Tarjanne, told an international gathering in Tokyo in 1994 that: "Today's ITU does not fully reflect the dramatic changes that have taken place in telecommunications. The Union remains largely the preserve of dominant carriers, with little active participation by new players in the telecommunications industry or by major users. This trend strongly suggests the need for greater private sector participation by the new players in the telecommunications industry. How can nongovernmental players be given a greater voice in ITU decision-making processes without infringing on the sovereign rights of nations?" The future evolution of the organization and its activities will revolve around this dilemma.

The activities of the organization were defined in the 1992 constitution as:

  • allocating bands of the radio frequency spectrum, allotting radio frequencies, registering radio frequency assignments, and registering orbital positions in the geostationary-satellite orbit in order to avoid harmful interference between radio stations of different countries;
  • coordinating efforts to eliminate harmful interference between radio stations of different countries;
  • facilitating the worldwide standardization of telecommunications;
  • delivering technical assistance to developing countries that want to create, develop, and improve their telecommunications systems;
  • fostering collaboration among its members to establishing rates at levels as low as possible while ensuring efficient service;
  • promoting measures that would save lives through the cooperation of telecommunications services; and
  • promoting the establishment of preferential and favorable lines of credit from international financial and development organizations for extending telecommunications services to the most isolated areas in countries.


One of the most important duties of ITU headquarters is to collect and collate essential telecommunication data and to edit and publish the numerous documents essential for the day-to-day operation of the various telephone, telegraph, and broadcasting systems of the world. Among the documents regularly issued by the ITU are the International Frequency List; the quarterly High Frequency Broadcasting Schedules; yearly radio statistics; lists of coast, ship, and fixed stations; codes and abbreviations in general use; lists of radiolocation stations; an alphabetical list of call signs; summaries of international monitoring information; the ITU Newsletter (formerly the Telecommunication Journal ) and similar publications, all generally issued in English, French, and Spanish editions, or in a single trilingual edition. A new bi-weekly publication was launched in 2000, the BR International Frequency Information Circular. Published in CD-ROM format, the circular represents a consolidated regulatory snapshot of activities in the satellite and terrestrial radio markets. Many of ITU's technical documents are available in electronic forms: online as part of ITUDOC, on CDROM discs, or on other computer-readable media.

Telecom Information Exchange Services (TIES) and ITUDOC

Th is on-line computer communication service is based at ITU headquarters for telecommunications-related information exchange. The system offers electronic mail, bulletin boards, document interchange, computer conferencing, and distributed access to ITU data bases such as global telecom services and tariffs, as well as notification of telecommunication information. It also contains a terminology infobase of 30,000 telecommunications terms in English, French, and Spanish.

ITUDOC allows users of the Internet to retrieve ITU documents and publications from a central computer server at ITU headquarters. It also allows participants in ITU's work to submit their contributions electronically.

DjiboutiLesothoSan Marino
AfghanistanDominicaLiberiaSão Tomé and Príncipe
AlbaniaDominican RepublicLibyaSaudi Arabia
AndorraEgyptLithuaniaSerbia and Montenegro
AngolaEl SalvadorLuxembourgSeychelles
Antigua and BarbudaEquatorial GuineaMadagascarSierra Leone
AustriaFijiMaliSolomon Islands
BahamasFranceMarshall IslandsSouth Africa
BangladeshGambiaMauritiusSri Lanka
BhutanGuatemalaMoroccoSyrian Arab Republic
Bosnia and HerzegovinaGuinea-BissauMyanmarTanzania
BrazilHaitiNauruThe Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Brunei DarussalamHondurasNepal
Burkina FasoIcelandNew ZealandTonga
BurundiIndiaNicaraguaTrinidad and Tobago
CameroonIran (Islamic Republic of)NigeriaTurkey
Cape VerdeIrelandOmanTuvalu
Central African RepublicIsraelPakistanUganda
ChileJamaicaPapua New GuineaUnited Arab Emirates
ChinaJapanParaguayUnited Kingdom
ColombiaJordanPeruUnited States
Congo, Republic ofKenyaPolandUzbekistan
Congo, Democratic Republic of theKiribatiPortugalVanuatu
Costa RicaKorea, Democratic People's Republic ofQatarVatican
Côte d'IvoireRomaniaVenezuela
CroatiaKorea, Republic ofRussian FederationVietnam
CyprusKyrgyzstanSt. Kitts and NevisZambia
Czech RepublicLao People's Democratic RepublicSt. LuciaZimbabwe
DenmarkLatviaSt. Vincent and the Grenadines

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The International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

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The International Telecommunication Union (ITU)