International Telecommunications Union (ITU)

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The International Telecommunications Union dates back to 1865, when 20 countries jointly signed the framework agreement at the International Telegraph Convention, establishing common rules and standard equipment for transmitting telegraph messages across international lines. The International Telegraph Union was launched to provide a forum to turn this agreement into a living framework through the evolution of international communications technologies, facilitating dialogue and enabling amendments to the initial agreement. Within a matter of years, the International Telegraph Union was busily devising legislation aimed at developing international standards for telephony and radio communications, further solidifying its role as the primary body governing and promoting international communications.

In 1932, the Telegraph Union merged the 1865 International Telegraph Convention and the 1906 International Radiotelegraph Convention into one agreement called the International Telecommunications Convention, and in 1934 changed its name to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), assuming responsibility for promoting and standardizing all international communications. The ITU moved under the auspices of the United Nations in 1947 under an agreement aimed at modernizing the union.

In 1989, at a Plenipotentiary Conference held in Nice, France, the ITU took responsibility for spear-heading technical telecommunications assistance to developing countries, placing such activities on a par with their traditional standardization and coordination activities. Through the Telecommunications Development Bureau, established the following year, technological developments in telecommunications are met with new initiatives from the ITU aimed at integrating these innovations into the infrastructures of developing countries, thereby connecting them to a broader world network. Its most ambitious development on this front at the start of the 2000s was its leadership in the development of a Global Information Infrastructure (GII), an international network aimed at providing universal access to modern telecommunications and information technologies so as to level the playing field between nations and help integrate and further the global economy.

In this way, the ITU was busily working to bridge the digital divide, a contemporary situation within what the ITU refers to, more broadly, as the "telecommunications gap." The ITU saw telecommunications infrastructure as the principal problem underlying the digital divide, and promoted itself not so much as a regulator but as a facilitator for different policymakers from across the world to hammer out compromises, insisting that its regulatory scope was limited to ensuring open access to telecommunications.

In the United States, however, the ITU generated its share of criticism, most particularly because the body increasingly served as a forum for countries registering complaints against the United States. For instance, in the late 1990s and early 2000s countries complained to the ITU that U.S. Internet users and carriers were the largest users of their international circuits but didn't pay for them, urging the ITU to compel U.S. carriers to shoulder some of the costs through a global charging mechanism. The U.S. is only one vote out of 189 countries at ITU, and thus lacks the power within the body that it exercises throughout the world economy, making it less capable of shaping the agenda. As a result, many U.S. policy makers and business leaders were extremely skeptical of the ITU. Partly as a result of this resistance from the U.S. and partly due to the largely self-regulated nature of the Internet, the ITU, while overseeing the broader telecommunications development schemes, had little voice in setting standards for the Internet itself.


International Telecommunications Union. "Welcome to the International Telecommunications Union." Geneva, Switzerland: International Telecommunications Union, 2001. Available from

Lynch, Grahame. "The World vs. America." America's Network, January 1, 2001.

Malim, George. "E-Commerce a Priority." Telecommunications, August 1999.

Yarbrough, Tanya L. "Connecting the World: The Development of the Global Information Infrastructure." Federal Communications Law Journal, March 2001

SEE ALSO: Digital Divide

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International Telecommunication Union