ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2022: What else beyond the elections frenzy?
23 Sep 2022
Prepared by Sorina Teleanu
Next Monday, 26 September, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) kicks off its Plenipotentiary Conference (PP) in Bucharest. Spanning three weeks, the PP has a very packed agenda and is presented as an event that will ‘set the direction of digital transformation for years to come, for the benefit of our planet and humanity’. This is the goal for the PP outlined by the organisation’s Secretary-General.
For ITU insiders, the PP is more or less business as usual. They largely know what to expect and what not to expect. For the rest of us, the plenipotentiary looks a bit like a maze. This surely was the case for us as we set off on a mission to understand what is actually going to happen over the next three weeks.
In brief, there are three key issues that ITU delegates will have to deal with during the conference.
- The first – and probably the one attracting the most attention – is the elections for key leadership positions within the organisation, from the competition between the US and Russian candidates for the Secretary-General position, to the negotiations that are probably already ongoing for seats on the ITU Council.
- Then, there will be discussions and decisions on overall ITU strategy and planning for the next four years.
- And last, but surely not least, we predict long nights spent in debates over ITU resolutions.
We will leave aside the first two issues, as they have already been covered extensively elsewhere, and focus on the third. Over the years, the ITU PP has adopted a significant number of resolutions dealing with topics as diverse as broadband networks, spam, child safety online, ICT security, and much, much more. In preparation for this year’s plenipotentiary, countries – typically within regional blocks, but not exclusively – have put forward proposals to amend some of these resolutions. And there are also several proposals for completely new resolutions. We have looked at some of these proposals and tried to identify those topics that will probably attract the most debates and controversy.
We list these topics in the summary below, together with indications of key elements that – in most cases – outline completely divergent views of countries/regional blocks. For those who have followed ITU discussions before, most of this will be deja-vu. What to do with the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs)? What role should ITU play regarding internet-related public policy issues and internet resources? Is there something (more) that ITU could/should do when it comes to cybersecurity? What about the organisation’s coverage of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI)? These are just a few examples of rather perennial questions on which consensus has been and will be very difficult to achieve.
As a consensus-driven organisation, ITU follows more of a pattern of glacial changes and gradual evolution. In this era of fast and profound transitions in digital geopolitics, it is not clear if ITU’s modus operandi will help calm current tensions or slide into irrelevance as governments and companies look for other venues for more immediate digital solutions. Time will tell!
(Potential) areas of controversy
There are a few proposals for a new resolution on AI. This is not the first time such proposals have been brought up at ITU. It also happened earlier this year, at the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA), when member states could not agree on adopting AI resolutions.
|X||How far should ITU work related to AI go?|
|Main points for debate*|
– ITU work related to AI to remain within the mandate and core competencies of the union related to telecoms/ICTs. (Canada/USA; European states)
– ITU to develop a toolkit to assist member states in establishing an AI ecosystem. (African states)
– Secretary-General to develop mechanisms to assist developing countries in mitigating AI-related risks. (African states)
Draft new resolutions: AI technologies and telecommunications/ICTs; AI technologies in support of telecommunications/ICTs and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda; Resolution on AI
|More on AI|
AI developments and analysis | AI diplomacy | Course on artificial intelligence
Against the backdrop of geopolitical tensions and the tech competition between both countries and companies, the concept of Open RAN has been gaining increasing attention. Open RAN refers to an architecture for open radio access network (RAN). Its goal is to open the protocols and interfaces among the various elements of RAN (radio, hardware, and software).
Open RAN standards are seen as an opportunity to weaken the market power of major 5G equipment providers. But there are also controversies around security and a concern that some Open RAN supporters attempt to lobby governments for preferential treatment for the architecture.
A (new) push for Open RAN?
|Main points for debate|
– ITU to strengthen activities related to the standardisation, development, and deployment of disaggregated, open, and interoperable network technologies and solutions. The Telecommunication Standardization Sector to cooperate with other standards-developing organisations (SDOs) in developing secure, disaggregated, open, and interoperable networks standards. ITU Bureaux to help raise awareness, particularly among developing countries, on Open RAN and similar technology. (Brazil, Paraguay)
– ITU to invite member states and sector members to promote the adoption of disaggregated, open, and interoperable network technologies, such as Open Radio Access Networks. (Arab states)
– Resolution 137: Deployment of future networks in developing countries
– Draft new resolution: Development of disaggregated, open, and interoperable networks
|More on Open RAN|
Telecommunication infrastructure | ‘Open’ as a digital keyword in 2022 | 5G
International Telecommunication Regulations
For several years, an ITU Council Expert Group on ITRs has been trying to undertake ‘a comprehensive review of the ITRs’. However, the group has not reached consensus on the need to revise the ITRs. Members also have divergent views on the extent to which the ITRs are actually used and whether there are difficulties caused by the existence of two sets of ITRs (the 2012 ones, signed by 89 countries vs the 1988 ones, valid for the rest of ITU member states).
What to do with the ITRs?
|Main points for debate|
– Discontinue EG-ITRs. (European states; American states)
– Develop a new set of ITRs, potentially through a Council Working Group on ITRs. (African states; Arab states)
– Potentially hold a World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) between 2024 and 2026 (Arab states) vs no WCIT unless there is broad consensus. (European states)
Resolution 146: Periodic review and revision of the ITRs
|More on ITRs|
Summary about ITRs
ITU’s role in building confidence and security in the use of ICTs
|Background and key issue |
Discussions are held on a more or less continuous basis on ITU’s (potential) role in strengthening cybersecurity at a national and international level.
|X||Main points for debate||X|
– ITU to serve as a repository of information sharing for activities, initiatives, and projects. (Arab states; African states)
– The Council to support and engage in efforts that lead to sustainable, secured, and stable Internet critical infrastructure. (Arab states)
– ITU to promote confidence and security in the use of ICTs in a way that enables the development of civil society and supports higher levels of social benefit and inclusion. (European states; American states)
– Directors of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau and Telecommunication Development Bureau to (a) promote the availability of information on national certification authorities and their fields of activity, and the algorithms and identifiers they use, for member states, sector members and relevant organisations; and (b) assist member states in assessing and adapting legislative and regulatory frameworks. (Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications states)
– Invitation for member states, sector members, and
associates to protect the right to privacy and develop recommendations on measures to mitigate any relevant violations in cyberspace. (Arab states)
Resolution 130: Strengthening the role of ITU in building confidence and security in the use of ICTs
|More on Cybersecurity|
Holistic coverage of cybersecurity | Cybersecurity and diplomacy | Cybersecurity at the UN: UN GGE and OEWG | Course on cybersecurity
ITU’s role regarding internet-related public policy issues and the management of internet resources
A Council Working Group (CWG-Internet) – open only to member states – has been working since 2010 to ‘identify, study, and develop matters related to international internet-related public policy issues’. So far, discussions have not led to any decisions, as countries are divided on the role that the ITU should play on internet-related matters.
– To what extent should ITU address issues related to the management of internet resources, given the role of organisations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and regional internet registries (RIRs)?
– What to do with CWG-Internet?
|Main points for debate|
– Open CWG-Internet – in part or fully – to sector members, associates, and other actors. (European states; American states)
– The Secretary-General to promote partnerships with organisations with responsibilities for internet resources. (European states)
– CWG-Internet to evolve towards an outcome-oriented platform and contribute to digital cooperation efforts. (Arab states; African states)
– CWG-Internet to analyse the implementation of enhanced cooperation and to produce deliverables helping to bridge related gaps. CWG to also suggest recommendations leading to sustainable, secure, and stable internet critical infrastructure in order to avoid internet fragmentation. (Arab states)
Resolution 102: ITU’s role with regard to international public policy issues pertaining to the internet and the management of internet resources, including domain names and addresses
|More on internet governance||Book: Introduction to internet governance (in 10 languages) | What is internet governance | Course on internet governance|
Bridging the standardisation gap and fostering industry participation
One of ITU’s core activities is to develop technical standards. But there is an imbalance, in particular between developed and developing countries, when it comes to participation in standardisation work. Another concern relates to the involvement of industry in standards-setting: Actors who used to be highly involved are toning down their participation, while contributions from new tech businesses tend to be limited. Both issues were also discussed at the WTSA. Member states were unable to reach consensus on a series of proposals intended to strengthen industry engagement.
– What can ITU do to bridge the standardardisation gap?
– How can ITU attract more industry participation in its work?
|Main points for debate|
– ITU regional offices to engage in activities related to bridging the standardisation gap. Hold study group meetings and other meetings in the regions. (American states)
– The Secretary-General to identify how sector members and associates can enhance participation in the three sectors. The Secretary-General to organise regular workshops with the industry to receive feedback on how to enhance participation. (Argentina, Australia, Canada, USA, Paraguay)
– The Secretary-General to establish an Industry Advisory Panel to provide advice on enhancing industry participation. (European states)
– Resolution 123: Bridging the standardisation gap between developing and developed countries
– Draft new resolutions: Encouraging the participation of industry in the work of the Union
|More on digital standards|
Portal with updates, resources, and actors
And as a bonus: Interesting issues to keep an eye on
The competition between nations and big tech companies is expanding into outer space, leading to new policy and regulatory challenges (frequency interferences, satellite collisions, space debris, exploitation of space resources, etc.).
Beyond spectrum issues (e.g. addressing interference challenges), what role can/should ITU play when it comes to space policy?
|Main points for debate|
– ITU to treat, as a matter of urgency, interference issues and other harms associated with the increasing use of shared spectrum and associated orbital resources in non-geostationary-satellite orbits (NGSO). Member states to create appropriate regulatory conditions for the authorisation of NGSO systems. (Solomon Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu)
– The Secretary-General to strengthen global cooperation among member states, UN entities, international and regional organisations, industry and private sector entities, to ensure that the benefits of space are brought to everyone. The Secretary-General to also undertake activities in strengthening capacity building for developing countries in space law. (African states)
– The Radiocommunication Bureau to publish periodic information related to satellite-monitoring facilities and cases of harmful interference. (African states)
ITU to encourage administrations to adopt measures to mitigate the risks of launching satellites above 400km altitude without manoeuvring capability enough to reduce collision risks. (Brazil)
– The Secretary-General to promote cooperation between ITU, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), and other organisations to facilitate coordination of activities related to the sustainable use of space. (Brazil)
– Resolution 186: Strengthening the role of ITU with regard to transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities
– Draft new resolutions: ITU’s role in the implementation of the Space 2030 Agenda: Space as a driver of sustainable development s well as its follow-up and review process; Ensuring transparency and sustainability and advancing confidence-building measures in outer space activities
|More on outer space|
Online and hybrid meetings are now no longer something new for global diplomacy. The ITU and its Sectors have been leading innovation in this field. It is now time to reflect on participation, protocol, and decision-making aspects of new types of online and hybrid meetings.
Decision-making in online meetings.
|Main points for debate|
– ITU to enhance remote participation to include decision making. (African states)
– The Council to develop procedures for conducting fully virtual meetings, physical meetings with remote participation, and hybrid meetings. (Arab states)
– The Directors of Bureaux to establish detailed procedures, rules and guidelines for fully virtual meetings and for physical meetings with remote participation, and clearly define the rights of members participating remotely in terms of decision-making. Council to develop high-level guidance to this effect. (American states)
– The Directors of Bureaux to develop detailed procedures, rules, and guidelines for the management of and participation in virtual and hybrid meetings. The Council to develop high-level frameworks for the management and governance of virtual and hybrid electronic meetings. (European states)
Resolution 167: Strengthening and developing ITU capabilities for electronic meetings and means to advance the work of the Union
|More on future of meetings||Future of meetings: ConfTech Lab, updates, resources, and tools|
* As outlined in proposals put forward by member states.
Note: Contributions to the PP are available at https://www.itu.int/md/S22-PP-C/en