Nº 3 2015 > Private Sector

Private Sector Involvement in ITU

An overview of private sector participation

Private Sector Involvement in ITU Private Sector Involvement in ITU

Cooperation between governments and the private sector has been a vital feature of ITU since its very first years. In some countries, the development of telegraphy was mainly driven by the State (e.g. in France).

In other countries, private companies drove the early growth of the telegraph industry (e.g. in Britain and the United States). Historically, this made private companies important partners in implementing the decisions of the Member States of the Union. Today, industry and governments continue to work together to shape the future direction of the telecommunication and information and communication technology (ICT) sector.

Even to this day, private companies retain a unique official status as Sector Members of ITU, rare among United Nations (UN) agencies. Several companies have a very long record of participation in ITU’s work. From our records, around sixty companies which are still members today have been active over 25 years or more, an impressive record in a fast-moving industry (see list ). Why were private companies admitted, and why is private sector participation valued? Research in the ITU archives and historical records shows that the collaboration with what we might today call ’the private sector’ has taken a number of forms:

  • The first, and earliest, way in which companies participated in ITU was by acceding to the Convention. The first International Telegraph Convention (1865) stipulated that States were obliged to impose rules on private companies. At the second International Telegraph Conference (1868), it was already agreed to include a provision (Article 66) for private telegraph companies to accede to the Convention and its regulations in order to benefit from “the advantages stipulated in the Convention”.
  • With the establishment in 1869 of the ITU Bureau, a permanent secretariat located in Bern, Switzerland, with its important responsibility to collect, collate and publish information required for telecommunication operations, private companies could share and exchange operational and administrative news in the Journal télégraphique and through the Notification, the official monthly bulletin that was sent to all Member States.
  • At the International Telegraph Conference in Rome in 1871–1872, ITU Member States decided to allow private companies to attend and be represented in meetings and ITU conferences with the right of discussion but without the right to vote (Rome Conference Rules, Article 4). As today, in the late nineteenth century, the private sector was a major partner in the technological development of the telegraph, telephone and radio. For example, in Britain, the telegraph system started out mainly as a private affair (at least until Britain nationalized its telegraph system in February 1870). Delegates at international conferences quickly realized they needed the collaboration of all the technical experts in the field, both from the Administrations and from the private companies involved in the practical operation of telegraph systems, to design regulations successfully in terms of common languages and codes, choice of apparatus and equipment permitting fast interconnection, harmonized tariffs and taxes.
  • By 1925, the telecommunication industry was maturing, and a number of private companies were already established as key actors in the market. To keep up with the rapid pace of development in new technologies, during the 1920s, three International Consultative Committees (CCIs) were established, for the Telephone service (the CCIF in 1924), Telegraph (the CCIT in 1925), and Radio (the CCIR in 1927), whereby technical experts of various countries could meet to exchange views on technical and other problems. The work of the CCIs presented a significant new opportunity for private companies to become involved in ITU and its work.
  • At the 1932 International Telegraph Conference in Madrid, more formal conditions for participation were introduced for companies (as well as Administrations) wishing to contribute to the work of the CCIs. Administrations and private enterprises interested in participating in the work of a CCI had to formally notify their interest and undertake to contribute to the general expenses of the Committee’s meetings, while the Secretariat had an obligation to notify all the other members.
  • The participation of private industry in ITU’s work was further formalized at the Additional Plenipotentiary Conference in Geneva in 1992, which transformed the CCIs into ’Sectors’: the Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T) and Radiocommunication (ITU–R) Sector, while a new Development (ITU–D) Sector was established (see separate articles in this edition on each Sector). Sector membership was established for companies and other entities. Private sector companies can now participate in ITU’s work either as Sector Members or Associates in any or all of ITU’s three Sectors to network with information and communication technology (ICT) regulators, policy-makers and experts from industry and academia, contribute to global standards and best practices, or participate in Study Groups on emerging issues in the ICT field. Today, ITU’s work benefits from the insights and expertise of 567 Sector Members, 164 Associates and 92 institutions from Academia.

Looking back: A win-win relationship

In debating questions of technical tariffs, prioritization, censorship and interconnection, ITU Member States needed the collaboration of the private sector companies involved in the operation of telegraph systems for implementing the joint decisions, as well as sharing technical know-how and expertise, from the very beginning of their work. Private companies have an active interest in exchanging information about their networks and in participating in the development of service regulations to help expand their market and achieve scale for their technologies.

The strong and growing participation of private companies throughout the first sixty years of the Union suggests that many private sector companies found their participation valuable and worthwhile. Thirty-one companies from around the world attended three ITU Conferences or more in this period, a notable achievement in an era when intercontinental travel was generally more difficult. Of the 89 companies that participated in ITU’s work in its first sixty years, 43 participated in two or more ITU conferences.

Indeed, at the International Telegraph Conference of Rome, 1871–1872, Mr Despecher, representing the seven submarine telegraph companies, thanked the Conference for having agreed to admit them to the proceedings. He hoped that their participation would contribute to extending the sphere of influence of the Convention, and he had every faith that this participation would enhance the Union (p. 262, Documents of the International Telegraph Conference of Rome, 1871–1872).

According to the minutes of the Rome Conference, a number of Administrations responded in kind and welcomed the participation of private sector companies in ITU Conferences. Speaking on behalf of the United Kingdom, Mr Champain considered their participation “a necessity — it would be almost impossible to resolve tariff questions without debating them directly with the representatives of the Companies”. Mr Vinchent, the representative of Belgium, stated that the admission of private companies “would bring to the Conferences the sum of their insights and their presence would facilitate uniformity in regulation”. Mr Brunner, the representative of Austro-Hungary, also recognized without any doubt the further advantages inherent in companies acceding to the Convention and accepting as far as possible the rules therein.

The growing participation by private companies all around the world accompanied the growing internationalization and geographical scope of the International Telegraph Convention. For example, the West India and Panama Telegraph Company and the Cuba Submarine Telegraph Company participated from 1879 onwards for six or more Conferences each.

Looking forward: Implications for the future

Cooperation between governments and the private sector continues to be a core principle of ITU in its work today. Over nearly two centuries, the telecommunication industry has grown to subsume its early predecessor, the first global communication technology of telegraphy, and in turn now forms part of a broader, more extensive ICT sector. The industry has transformed beyond recognition in terms of scale and scope, as well as the technologies used. ICTs nowadays permeate the very fabric of society, as modern processes and operations become automated and digitized.

In some countries, telecommunications/ICTs has remained a State-owned industry since its inception. In other countries, the telecom/ICT industry has been nationalized and then privatized again. A number of companies with which ITU has longstanding relationships over a number of decades were State-owned incumbents and made the transition to private ownership, following full or partial privatization. Beliefs surrounding the efficiency of monopolies versus competition have altered, while the definitions — and terminology — surrounding the private sector are subject to continual change.

The relationship between States and private companies both in telecommunications and in other sectors is dynamic and constantly in flux, and continues to evolve. Unique among the UN, ITU benefits from the membership of both Member States and private-industry Sector Members, and will continue to enjoy the ongoing ’win-win’ relationship between them in its endeavours. ITU’s work demonstrates how industry and government can collaborate together towards reaching common goals, including the scaling of technology to connect more and more people and to bridge the digital divide. Private and State entities will continue working in partnership at ITU, in the culturally innovative environment that they have successfully created together over a period of a century and a half.

This article is adapted from research undertaken by the Library and Archives Service, based on the records of ITU conferences and CCI plenary assemblies, the ITU Journal and ITU’s official monthly Notification bulletin sent to all Member States.


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