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What went wrong at WCIT

By Paul Budde - posted Monday, 24 December 2012

There are many positives to WCIT-12 – 95% of the issues discussed reached full consensus. This means that the international telecoms world is still turning round, and will continue to do so. As is often the case, the media focus has been, not on what is achieved, but on what went wrong. BuddeComm, however, acknowledges the positives, while at the same time this analysis looks at what went wrong and why we believe that happened.

As has been widely reported the key problem area was more of a political nature and clearly created a division between the countries with very strong positions on freedom of speech, especially in relation to the internet, and those who would like to see more international control or governance of the protocols, and naming and numbering systems that allow it to work.

The political debates during the conference on these issues showed a clear difference in opinion between the western world and the rest of the world – this despite the fact that anything that could undermine the freedom of the internet (as in content) was dealt with in both the preamble and the final text. Unfortunately however, this did not undo the fundamental differences expressed during the often heated political debates, and in the end even any perceived possible interference was shunned by the 55 countries who did not sign the final text of the Treaty on International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) on the closing day. Some of these are likely to accede to the Treaty after consultation with their parliaments, while others will probably never do so.


As with other international treaties, political differences are becoming increasingly prominent, and as we have indicated in our wrap-up of WCIT-12 this is a bad omen for the ITU, which until now has largely been free of such a high level of political interference.

A major focus of WCIT-12 was on how to speed up connecting the 4.5 billion people that are not yet online. We cover this in a separate analysis. BuddeComm also strongly believes that the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development can play a key role in this process.

The definition of the internet

As BuddeComm was already saying in June, a key problem that we believe significantly contributed to the split in WCIT-12 is the misalignment of definitions of the internet. The US definition differs from the one applied in the rest of the world, and, while it has not been adopted by many others, we believe that this fundamental difference is the main reason for the WCIT problems.

For the USA the internet means both content and telecom infrastructure. This strange construct was created by Verizon and AT&T in the USA in order to prevent anyone from obtaining regulated access to their telecoms networks. Regulations in the USA are largely dictated by these two giants and, as a consequence of their successful lobbying activities (worth hundreds of millions of dollars), their wishes are largely rubberstamped by Congress.

If this difference between definitions had not existed the internet, as in content, could easily have been separated from the telecoms infrastructure. The intertwined nature of the American interpretation kept the issue contaminated.


Sender pays issue

The ETNO proposal from the European telcos, which never had any serious chance of even making it to the conference agenda, was nevertheless used by Google to create a massive PR campaign to demonise, not the ETNO proposal, but WCIT and the ITU.

Most emerging countries would also have liked such a clause in relation to international internet tariffs, similar to the one most of them still use for telephony traffic. These international settlement charges have largely been abandoned by the western economies. However, the internet is not the same as telephony and such a surcharge would actually have hampered the development of their digital economy. A major problem here is that in many developing economies much of those fees are hived off by ruling business and government families. This, in turn, is a major obstacle to telecoms reforms that are needed in these countries for the development of their digital economies.

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About the Author

Paul Budde derives income from consulting to the telcommunications industry as in independent adviser. He has no shareholdings in the sector.

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