Meet the ITU, the tech agency that helps the world communicate
Oct 5, 2022

Meet the ITU, the tech agency that helps the world communicate

The International Telecommunication Union has one, simple mandate: help the world's communications infrastructure work together.

Since 1865, a special agency, now part of the United Nations, has had a major influence on global communication standards.

The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, ensures technology from the telegraph to the internet plays nicely across international borders.

Last week, ITU member states elected a new secretary-general, Doreen Bogdan-Martin. She’s an American and has worked with the agency for decades.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams recently spoke with Mallory Knodel, chief technology officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, about the ITU’s history. (Knodel is also a member of the U.S. delegation to the ITU, but is not speaking on behalf of that delegation.) The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Mallory Knodel: So the International Telecommunication Union, it’s got a simple mandate: to help the world’s communications infrastructure interoperate. So back in the 1800s, they were worried about the telegraph, so it used to be the International Telegraph Union. It got renamed, it’s dealt with telephony over the years and now does focus on digital technology. But its mandate is a little bit narrower than you might think, because there are other standards bodies that have filled that gap in making the internet work. So the ITU plays a role, but it’s a smaller one.

Kimberly Adams: What are some examples of how the ITU has influenced telecommunication standards?

Knodel: One of the really obvious examples would be our telephones so that we can make phone calls around the world. I can be in one country, pick up the phone and call a completely different country that might have its own standards bodies, and that the telephone call will go through, there won’t be a lot of delay or static. That’s pretty revolutionary, and we take it for granted, but it’s because the ITU worked on standards around the world for many years to make that happen.

Adams: What’s the process for something that happens at the ITU, one of these standards, to actually become a policy that affects the technology that you and I use?

Knodel: One way that it works is to create regulations. Now, these would be binding, but they take a lot more time. And they’re usually pretty narrow in scope, because then all of the countries that are parties to the ITU, which is all of them, would have to agree and sign that. So those regulations are things that are really, really important. When it comes to the internet — and I’ll stay in that lane because that’s my area of expertise — it’s going to be things like how to harmonize emergency services numbers, you know, 911, or other ones. How do you make that work everywhere? Another one could be actually how the internet grows. The sectors of the ITU are the standardization sector, the radio communication sector, and then last sector is the development sector. And this is making sure that access to telecommunications technologies is equal, equitable, global, that could be something that all member states would be required to participate in.

Adams: The internet is such a huge part of global telecommunications now. What sort of work has the ITU done on standardizing online communications?

Knodel: There’s some public policy issues that it looks at related to IP addresses, over-the-top services, cybersecurity, and remember that the internet was in the early days built on top of telephones. So the ITU had been responsible for making sure that telephony was global, and access to that pretty universal, but I wouldn’t say primary, right? There have actually been other standardization bodies that have created the internet we know today and continue to manage it. So the Internet Engineering Task Force, which I participate in, the Internet Architecture Board, I’m a member of. Those are places where people working on internet technology were getting together from the early days and actually coming up with those standards.

Adams: What do you think the ITU, under their new Secretary General Doreen Bogdan-Martin will be focusing on in the near future?

Knodel: Doreen Bogdan-Martin is going to have a focus on development and extending Iinternet access to the next few billions of users that are not yet online. It’s a role that no other body can fill, to make sure that there is a global effort by powerful decision makers and governments – making sure Internet access is ubiquitous, in every corner of the world, and also resilient, robust. That is really important. If we look into the future of the Internet, what we’re seeing is a sort of risk of fragmentation, what folks are calling the “splinter net.” And so it also speaks to a need that the ITU can certainly think about meeting. We actually want access to the one internet that is fully interoperable and fully global, to be meaningful for as many people as we can get on the internet with their devices, everywhere, wherever they are.

Mallory Knodel mentioned the potential splintering of the internet. Part of that is due to the global “digital divide” between developed countries and countries that don’t have comparable internet infrastructures.

But it also has to do with worries over a global bifurcation of the internet, between states who have a more open-internet approach and those who prefer stricter, state control.

This piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies explains the context for those fears and why that debate played such a significant role in deciding who would lead the ITU.

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