European Affairs

Spectrum Allocation: The Developing Countries Must Be Heard     Print Email
Ambassador Gail Schoettler

Head of U.S. Delegation to WRC-2000

Early in the morning after the final meeting of the World Radiocommunication Conference-2000 in Istanbul last June, the chief spokesman for the Syrian delegation told me that for the first time in his more than 20 years of experience with the WRC, delegates were saying to him, "I'm happy with the way this turned out. I think most other delegates are happy, too."

In the past, he told me, most people had left saying, "I'm unhappy, but so is everyone else, so it must be O.K."


For the United States, WRC-2000 was a big success. We are pleased if most other delegations felt the same way. The Conference, after all, is supposed to be treaty by consensus, taking into consideration the needs of all the participating countries. It is a goal we need to keep in mind in both Europe and the United States as we prepare for WRC-2003.

For despite the happiness of many of the delegates, the Conference once again revealed deep differences between developing and developed nations.

One of the top issues of the Conference was deciding on spectrum for third generation wireless services, known as IMT-2000 or 3G. Before the Conference, our public and private sector delegates worked together to negotiate a common U.S. proposal, the principles of which were adopted in their essential parts by the Conference.

These principles include a multi-band system enabling countries and regions to determine what band or bands are best suited to their needs. There must be flexibility, allowing governments to decide when and where - and if - they want to implement IMT-2000. Finally, IMT-2000 should be open to all technologies that could deliver the services, now and in the future.

In our discussions with developing countries, these principles seemed particularly important. Many told us they could not afford to move rapidly from their current PCS bands to a different IMT-2000 band and that they wanted to migrate over time into IMT-2000 using their PCS bands. In addition, many are not yet ready to make a decision about where to put IMT-2000 or what technology best suits their needs.

For the United States, the next step is deciding on a band or parts of bands for IMT-2000 services. The Federal Communications Commission must auction this spectrum by late 2002. Consequently, the process has begun for evaluating all the bands proposed by WRC-2000, including both government and industry frequencies.

The studies will determine if there is a place for current users to move, what the costs of moving would be, who will be responsible for paying those expenses, and a time frame for moving incumbents if necessary.

IMT-2000 is clearly a competitiveness issue for U.S. industry. Our neighbors are moving quickly to identify spectrum for the service, as are Europe and Asia. Japan has a thriving IMT-2000 marketplace already in existence. For nations with lots of resources, IMT-2000 is an exciting opportunity and competitive challenge. For developing countries, however, there are lots of concerns.

This is an issue - the concerns and needs of the rest of the world - that the United States and Europe must take very seriously as we move forward in expanding communications services. It is key to the success of future WRCs and to the well-being of developing nations.

There are a few countries - maybe 25 or 30 - that develop new technology, provide services, and manufacture products. The rest of the world must buy what the developed world makes available to them, even if it isn't what they think is best for their countries. The developing countries believe that they often get the developed countries' outdated systems, which simply puts them further behind economically.

Because of their wealth, the developed countries use the biggest chunk of radio spectrum. The developing countries fear that there will be nothing left for them if they eventually have the resources to use their fair share. This breeds resentment.

Meanwhile, developing countries are becoming more sophisticated at managing global politics. The Arab world, for example, has formed a regional group that comes up with common positions on key issues and, even with dissent on many details, sticks to its joint agreements. Several Arab delegates are extremely knowledgeable about the issues, rules, regulations, procedures and politics of the ITU, giving them significant clout.

African countries are struggling to form a sub-Saharan Africa region. They are hindered by language differences and tend to form Francophone and Anglophone blocs. They are also limited by their severe lack of resources and expertise. Nonetheless, they strongly support their peers in developed/developing world disputes.

In Asia, several tiny countries have become players in global telecommunications by registering satellites. Other Asian countries play key roles because of their expertise or market size. There is, nonetheless, a divide between developed and developing nations in Asia, with the developing countries often feeling more affinity with their peers from other parts of the world than with their wealthier Asian neighbors. There is a similar division in the Americas.

Europe and the United States need to recognize the importance of this divide and the growing connection among developing countries. It is exemplified in at least three ways: a common message, mutual emotional support, and votes.

The message of the developing countries has at least five parts:

  1. These international conferences give nothing to the developing world.
  2. The developed world does not listen to the views or the needs of the developing world.
  3. Developing countries can't really participate in the decisions of the ITU because they have neither the people nor the expertise to take part fully.
  4. The division of resources is grossly unfair.
  5. The developed world needs to do more to help the developing world.

Developing countries contend that the developing world's views are not respected. Two stark examples of this occurred at WRC-2000. In one case, a delegate was outraged because the Conference chair refused to allow debate on one of his proposals. A discussion that could have taken 30 minutes took nearly four hours. Another delegate wanted to debate a dispute between the Arabs and Europeans. This was also denied.

Both these delegates resorted to their only recourse - calling for a vote of the plenary, a time-consuming process and particularly unwelcome as the Conference was in its last hours of work. Had compromises not been reached, all the developing countries would have supported a full debate on their colleagues' proposals and the Conference would not have had time to conclude its business.

There is clear sympathy among developing countries for one another's "underdog" status, lack of resources and perceived lack of respect from the developed world. They support one another in debates. They make the same points about their inability to influence decisions that matter to them. They share a keen focus on sovereignty.

Of the 150 countries at the WRC-2000, well over 100 were part of the developing world. If there were a vote on a dispute between the developed and developing world, the developing countries would win it hands down. Because the ITU works hard to achieve consensus, a meltdown hasn't yet occurred.

If, however, the developed countries started to lose crucial votes that materially affected their commercial or national security interests, they might substantively pull out of the ITU, maintaining only a shell presence. That could lead to chaos. Usable radio spectrum is a global, public, and scarce resource. We need the goodwill and partnership of all countries to share it.

The United States and Europe have a responsibility to promote international cooperation. Part of carrying out this responsibility is improving opportunities for poor countries. There are a number of things we should do routinely:

  1. Reach out to developing countries as a regular part of our conference preparatory efforts. European nations do this more regularly and effectively than the United States. The United States needs to meet with developing countries on their turf rather than expecting them to come to us.
  2. Ensure that ITU reform includes an important role for developing countries. Their primary goal at WRC-2000 was replanning of the broadcasting spectrum, which they achieved. Because they are buyers, not sellers, of telecommunications products and services, their primary issues for the future are protecting their long-term opportunities and their sovereignty. They need to be assured that they will continue to have a voice in decisions that affect them.
  3. Listen carefully to the needs of developing countries and incorporate their interests into U.S. and European proposals as much as possible. If this is ignored, the economic and political divide will simply get larger, a devastating and completely unacceptable outcome.
  4. Find more ways to train people from the developing world. The United States Telecommunications Training Institute (USTTI), which brings officials from developing countries to the United States for training, is an excellent example of how to do this. There are other things that need to be done as well. Delegates to technical conferences from the developing countries keenly feel their lack of expertise. They do not have the money to travel to the United States or Geneva for training or for study meetings. The following are three simple ideas that could make a difference:

a. Send delegations from developed countries, comprised of both government and industry experts, to train people locally. For example, developing countries are eager to use global positioning technology in their countries. A team of GPS industry experts could train African engineers in several regions of Africa, making the information available at an affordable price.

b. Encourage and fund university exchange programs for both faculty and students with more developing countries. Few students in developing countries can afford to study abroad. They feel they are being left behind because they cannot get the training they need to help their countries compete in the global economy.

c. Move ITU informational and study group meetings around the world. Since travel to Geneva is too expensive for many poor countries, they cannot participate in studying or solving problems. Some of these meetings could be held on their ground.

While the issues that were decided at WRC-2000 are critical to the future of the world economy, even more important is the ongoing concern about the growing divide between developed and developing countries. Europe, the United States, and the rest of the developed world have a strong stake in ensuring the economic well being of our neighbors around the globe. That should be one of our primary items of action as we move deeper into the information age.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.