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COMMUNICATIONS: Developing Countries Set the Standards

Ravi Kanth Devarakonda

GENEVA, Jan 3 2007 (IPS) - Developing countries led by India, China, Brazil are now taking the lead in setting global standards in the rapidly transforming telecommunications sector due to convergence of hitherto separate communications and entertainment services, says Hamadoun Toure, the new secretary general of the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union.

“The standardisation in the telecom sector used to be dominated by a rich boys club because only the industrialised countries were setting standards,” he told IPS in an interview, suggesting that there is a major change now.

“The good news is that developing countries like India, China, Brazil are now in the forefront of setting standards at ITU, which augurs well for the world, ” Toure said.

African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Mali among others are also participating closely in deciding telecom standards at a time when the industry is subjected to breathtaking changes, he said.

Toure, who is the first candidate from sub-Saharan Africa to lead the ITU at a time when “convergence” has become the order of the day, says he is not worried by the profusion of new technologies or the rapid shake-out in telecom companies. Telecom analysts are not sure whether ITU will be able to play its traditional standard-setting and regulatory role in a turbulent technology-driven environment.

Due to convergence of what are called Internet Protocol networks, companies that used to provide different services – telephone operators, Internet service providers and cable TV firms – are all able to bundle these services from one source.

In the wake of new mode of communications like telegraph and then telephone, ITU was set up in 1865. Fixed telephone lines continued to rule the roost for well over a century, with public telephone monopolies calling the shots in a large majority of countries.

The rapid disappearance of the public monopolies coupled with the emergence of a few private companies such as AT&T in the United States, Vodafone, France Telecom, BT and Hutchison Whampoa are creating an unusual situation at the ITU where governments had so far set standards.

ITU went through a difficult period following the changes, especially the crash of telecom companies in 2001. Its mandate for setting global standards, distributing radio-frequency bandwidth, and settling accounting rates between countries came under intense pressure. Switzerland where ITU is headquartered decided to reduce its contribution on the ground that the multilateral body does not have much role to play in the coming days.

The new secretary general says he is ready to prove that ITU can “help and strengthen the convergence”, maintaining that it is his task is to “ensure that there is a good marriage in these technologies and a good level playing field for all the members and all the players.”

He says in a world awash with technologies like voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), which are breaking all the barriers, there is greater need for standards. Having come from the private sector, he looks positively to the latest mergers and acquisitions in the global telecom services industry.

Last week, AT&T caused a major upheaval in the U.S. telecom services industry when it took over BellSouth Corp in the largest telecommunications takeover in U.S. history. Similarly, Vodafone is upping the scales for buying the Hutchison Essar, India’s fourth largest mobile phone operator.

“It is good for telecommunications because all our constituencies – governments, industry, and consumers – are doing well and surely, the consumer will definitely benefit from all these mergers and takeovers,” Toure argued.

But the telecom historians have already announced that fixed telephones that was the mainstay of the ITU all these years will disappear soon. “When you are talking about changes, I must emphasise that ITU is adapting to changes from telegrams to telephone and now convergence between digital and telecommunication technologies.”

Besides, “it took 100 years for telephony to spread to one billion people and now it took 25 years to spread to an additional billion of new subscribers,” said Toure, who came from one of Africa’s poorest countries, Mali.

Toure says the telecom sector in Africa which is currently experiencing a digital divide will grow rapidly over the next five to ten years because of new technologies.

Nigeria is experiencing a 400 percent growth in the mobile telephones, followed by South Africa and Gabon. The ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) are helping to transform many activities in Africa.

Toure’s biggest tasks are bridging the telecoms and digital divide, especially on his own continent, management of the distribution of bandwidth, or what is called the frequency spectrum management to ensure there are no unseemly conflicts between countries in placing transmitters that can jam communications in far-flung places, and more importantly managing global cyber-security.

Toure reckons cyber-security is his principal goal, because the ITU was given that role by the Information Summit in 2005. “We have to avoid cyber-war which will be catastrophic and worse than a worldwide tsunami,” he warned, underscoring the need for an international framework and standards in the ICT-driven world.

Toure said he will set examples of how to arrive at appropriate global standards in the telecom sector, and strengthen national, regional, and international regulation.

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