Reining in UN’s little known International Telecommunication Union

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The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a relatively obscure but important appendage of the United Nations, is troubled. ITU faces several significant problems that keep it from excelling at its primary, but not sole, responsibility: global radio spectrum harmonization. 

So what can be done to correct course and allow the organization to remain viable for the future?

{mosads}The problems facing the ITU are not new or revolutionary, and reasonable solutions are not hard to imagine or design. Chief among the list of objections is the desire by many member states for the ITU to opine on and regulate the exciting new technology developments of our day, such as the inner workings of the Internet, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, drones and the like. In effect, the ITU is trying to be the global regulator for emerging technologies.


Take for instance the just concluded ITU’s “Global Symposium for Regulators,” one of its premier yearly events. This year the agenda for the July 2018 event focused on the issues of privacy, data security, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence. These are all incredibly important topics but are not central to the ITU’s mission and aren’t within the jurisdiction of many international authorities who attended. Indeed, these issues are managed and regulated by national, not international, regulators and agencies.

What is the practical impact of developing policy views on such issues if attendees have little role in effectuating any proposed changes? Why was there no conversation on concrete ideas for spectrum policy for the next couple of decades? Why no discussion of expanding broadband or communications technology access to the farthest corners of the globe? Countering that these issues were explored in the past or will be examined in the future is no response to the immediate and immense needs.

Additionally, if ITU is allowed to go so far astray, why not add nuclear reactor contamination or space travel to the mix?

This is not to imply that the ITU can or should ignore challenging matters relevant for a truly digital marketplace. In all reality, trying to convince the ITU to stay exclusively on mission would likely fall on deaf ears. In fact, past attempts to move such discussions away from the ITU to other global forums, including those within the UN, proved ineffective. But, that doesn’t mean that everyone must embrace such waywardness. 

As an alternative, there should be some primacy established with regards to issues explored by the ITU. This can be done in terms of financial resources and mission attention. Specifically, no fewer than 80 percent of all expenditures or events must be centered on spectrum policies. If it showed a sufficient competency on formulating a spectrum agenda maybe it could adjust this percentage, but that is far from reality today.

Similarly, the ITU has a staffing problem. It’s not that there are not enough staff, quite the contrary, as member countries have tried to ensure that “their people” remained employed, even to the detriment of the organization’s mission. On a larger note, existing staff are allowed to operate without sufficient oversight or control by elected leadership.

This “independence” lets staff pick and choose projects to pursue; hire the technical consultants who tend to reconfirm their desired outcome; allow contracts to be awarded to friends and loyalists; frame debates to be held, the questions to be asked, and the participants invited; and so much more. In some regards, staff priorities are driving the functions of the ITU in order to perpetuate their personal views and to preserve their own jobs. Allowing staff to dictate frameworks and policy outcomes without appropriate checks by elected leaders has corrosive effects. For the ITU, it’s proven to be debilitating.

Preventing staff from having too much influence and decision-making power is fairly easy. Appropriate procedural safeguards can be installed to prevent staff from, among other things, self-dealing, making decisions in an isolated manner, or committing funds without oversight. Likewise, we can demand more expansive and detailed budgeting, with account specifics, than is currently provided.

At a minimum, we should ensure that more decisions be made by member states rather than delegating so much operational authority to a problematic structure. Unfortunately, the ITU leadership structure is one of its biggest deficiencies.

For truly flawed reasons, elected leadership positions at the ITU operate on the get along and get promoted premise, missing the opportunity to tap talented outsiders with fresh perspective to participate and contribute. From my view, it seems instead of electing the most qualified person or those that may be able to correct its ills, member countries tend to vote for the next person in line from the perceived lower rung. If that were ever acceptable, it is no longer tolerable as it allows stale thinking and management flaws to persist. The current practice doesn’t work for an organization needing a renewed approach to its fundamental charges.

Ideally, the ITU must be made up of truly visionary leaders — those willing to do the hard work to get critical spectrum bands realigned and put to their highest use. To accomplish this, the ITU needs to adopt a policy that I strongly disagree with when it comes to domestic politics: defined term limits for leadership positions. Only by injecting new blood with new ideas will the organization be able to turn towards a sustainable and workable model for the future.

To complement this, the United States has put forth an eminently qualified and capable candidate for the upcoming election for the ITU Development Sector. As a known but new face to the leadership election races, she would be the first woman ever to serve in ITU leadership and brings with her a wealth of knowledge and a commitment to properly and thoughtfully reform the organization from within. Failure to take her candidacy seriously and give her all due respect and consideration would be a grave mistake for the ITU member states. It will further hasten those within the United States who wish to withdraw from the organization or limit our financial obligations.

Without these necessary changes, we risk further fragmentation and like nations pursuing spectrum policy elsewhere. I can assure you that the United States intends to pursue the best course of action to meet its own spectrum needs. While I am hopeful that the ITU will be part of that process, there is much work ahead before that is a sure thing.

Michael O’Rielly is commissioner of Federal Communications Commission. Prior to joining the commission, O’Rielly spent almost 20 years as a congressional staffer, most recently as a policy advisor in the Office of the Senate Republican Whip, led by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

Tags John Cornyn Michael O’Rielly Telecommunications United Nations
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