From Technology in Tunis...to a Wireless WSIS

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why the International Telecommunications Union(ITU) Matters


By E.K.Bensah Jr.

Despite the fact that Ghana recently took over the Council of the International Telecommunications Union from Bulgaria at their general meeting in Geneva, I do not for a second think that Ghanaians generally know what the implications of this position mean. I think it makes sense that if you are to understand the significance of the position, then it is only fair you obtain an insight into what the ITU is and does. In my estimation, few Ghanaians care enough to know these two. Against this background, I am going to spend the next couple of weeks touching on aspects of the ITU, what it does and why it matters--not just for Ghana, the sub-region or the continent, but for the rest of the world.

ITU Council for Dummies

Let me begin, though, with the Council. It comprises 46 member states and is the ITU's governing body. The assuming of Ghana on the Council does not mean that Ghana gets to head the ITU; it simply means that like the UN's Security Council, which rotates between countries every now and then, Ghana will chair discussions of the 46-member group, which includes the implementation of the Union's strategic plan, with the objective of responding to the current demands of a fast-changing telecommunications and ICT environment.

Right now, Ghana's MP and Minister for Communications Haruna Iddrisu will be the key person on the ITU Council. Speaking early October at the start of the Council, he talked about how Ghana is committed “to the ideals and values of ITU”. Normal speak you might think. Indeed, but here was the killer: “we must set the tone and agenda on how to strengthen regulatory practices, address issues related to convergence and ensure the smooth functioning of the Internet.”

It is conceivable that buried inside those words was not just a Minister of Communications hot on the heels of a report looking at the Sales and Purchase agreement (SPA) of the deal between Ghana Telecom and Vodafone, but one that has for quite a while sought to highlight the necessity of the rule of law around the telecommunications and ICT sector. In this respect, when he spoke this way, he was not just recognizing that there remain regulatory practices--as exemplified by Ghana's National Communications Authority(NCA) - but that governments have to keep an eagle-eye on strengthening regulation to the extent that new and emerging technologies can be kept under wraps as well.

Another key thing Iddrisu said was in relation to the hottest topic at the moment--climate change. Here, his words are in consonance with the ITU, which strongly believes that ICTs can be seriously harnessed to combat climate change.

Why we must care about the ITU

After all has been said and done, the ITU is more than the governing council; it currently has a secretary-general--Malian Hamadoun Toure--and quite a bit of work to be done. However, most of its work can be broken down as Wikipedia explains it: “Its main tasks include standardization, allocation of the radio spectrum, and organizing interconnection arrangements between different countries to allow international phone calls -- in which regard it performs for telecommunications a similar function to what the UPU performs for postal services”.

Breaking it down for the rest of us, ITU is in fact a lot about standards, standards, and more standards. Wikipedia explains it this way: “Due to its longevity as an international organization and its status as a specialized agency of the United Nations, standards promulgated by the ITU carry a higher degree of formal international recognition than those of most other organizations that publish technical specifications of a similar form.”

In short, ITU is not just the UN's telecom agency, but the agency that sets standards that are meaningful.

Boon for mobile phone users--phone chargers!

Small wonder, then, that the ITU has just approved a standard for phone chargers. The UN agency has just given its endorsement to an energy-efficient one-charger-fits-all new mobile phone solution. Now, every mobile user will enjoy the new Universal Charging Solution(UCS), which enables the same charger be used for all future-compliant handsets--irrespective of make and model.


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