ITU aiming to rev up to Internet speed

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will form new informal working groups of experts or "policy sherpas" to help spur the lumbering organisation into faster action on key infrastructure issues, the new ITU chief said in his first visit to the US since taking office earlier this year.

In his address to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies here on Friday, Yoshio Utsumi, the ITU's first new secretary general in nearly a decade, acknowledged that the organisation has been too slow to address global telecommunications issues that have become increasingly urgent with the advent of the Internet, electronic commerce and the ongoing convergence of communications and information technology. The initiatives he proposed are intended to spur solutions to urgent policy problems such as the development of global standards for digital authentication that the ITU has not moved fast enough to address in the past.

"There are many urgent and complicated issues which the ITU members would like help in resolving," Utsumi told the gathering of US government officials, telecommunications industry lobbyists and press. "Unfortunately, the traditional ITU mechanisms have become too large and too bureaucratic to address such issues in an efficient and timely fashion."

Utsumi hopes to form several small, informal groups consisting of "the best experts in the world" on critical issues including the re-examination of the current international telecommunication regulations and the feasibility of holding a "world summit of the information society", as well as international standards for digital authentication. These working groups will discuss the issues and develop proposed solutions for the consideration of the larger ITU body much more rapidly than other ITU mechanisms, such as its World Telecommunication Policy Forum, Utsumi explained.

"The creation of the policy forum was a great success," Utsumi asserted. "But it is only suitable for dealing with worldwide problems which have reached a certain level of maturity.

"What I am proposing is small groups that are very flexible to develop proposals for consideration by the rest of the ITU," Utsumi said. "Unless we use a light, rapid and flexible approach of this kind, I am afraid the ITU will be unable to reply to the requests of its membership for help in solving urgent policy problems."

Utsumi, a former official at Japan's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, who took over as ITU Secretary General in January, identified three primary forces driving the changes in global telecommunications and putting pressure on the ITU to act more quickly. The development of truly global systems such as the Internet, the convergence of communications and information technology into multimedia information services and the uneven pace of telecommunications market liberalisation have come together to form a three-pronged "revolution", he said.

In a mild rebuke of his hosts, Utsumi advocated the ITU's multilateral approach to meeting these challenges, rather than through bilateral negotiations, "the approach that most Americans believe is best for them".

Utsumi stressed that the role of the ITU in facilitating global telecommunication policies is not that of a regulator but simply to provide a forum for its members to vet issues and build consensus. The ITU is a UN sponsored organisation consisting of nearly all national governments and more than 550 service providers and manufacturers from the telecommunications, information technology and broadcasting industries, he noted.

"The ITU is not a regulator, but a meeting place for governments," Utsumi said. "The main job of the ITU is to organise meetings where our members can discuss problems and find solutions."

Despite its often slow-moving bureaucracy, the ITU is an effective organisation that held more than 1000 days of meetings last year, Utsumi noted, defending the organisation against criticism that it is "a club".

"The ITU is really a 'Cosmos Club for the Information Age'," he said, referring to the venue of Friday's address, a Washington, DC, social club established in 1878, in which telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was a founding member.

"The ITU is sometimes criticised for being a club. But anyone with an interest in telecommunications can join," Utsumi said. "At our Plenipotentiary Conference . . . last year, we made it easier than ever to become a member. It is much easier than to become a member of the Cosmos Club."

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