WCIT lowdown: it's all about Africa and Committee 5

Everything you need to know about how WCIT will pan out


ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure opens the conference. He has a lot on his plate. Credit: ITU

WCIT has got off to a quick and effective start.

Having spent much of the past year preparing for the conference and notwithstanding a number of last-minute contributions, the governments of the world are ready for what will be a contentious conference.

The first day saw the heads of delegations meet and thrash out agreements that their staff had already largely agreed. Then came the opening ceremony and a stage-managed but important display of support between the ITU and ICANN. The message was plain: WCIT will not be about Internet governance.

That's not to say there aren't important and contentious issues coming over the next two weeks. Most significant are:

  • Pricing, and an apparent effort to impose telephone pricing structures on the Internet
  • Cybersecurity, and an effort to extend government monitoring efforts they currently have with telephony direct to the Internet
  • Privacy and other content regulation efforts, which are spread throughout the proposed changes and concern many civil society groups.

The ITU has put out several documents that will be the touch-points from now until the end of the conference - which is supposed to be Friday 14 December but we can see it running over.

Here's what you need to know

Unless you are an ITU obsessive and are interested in the internal politics and peculiar dynamics of this UN arm, here is what you need to know:

  • All the work will be done in Committee 5.
  • The stockpile of work has been split between two working groups. Working Group 1 will deal with the most contentious issues: Definitions; Charging and Accounting (we'll explain why these are the hot topics below)
  • A careful balance has been struck with who gets to be the chair and vice-chairs of the working groups, as well as Committee 5, and, of course, the conference itself (more on that below as well).
  • The brokers of any agreement, as expected, are going to be the African voting block.

The most controversial articles

The big fights will come within two articles: Article 2 covering Definitions, and Article 6 covering Charging and Accounting.

Here's why:

As dull as it sounds, definitions that cover what words used in the rest of the treaty actually mean are probably more important than the treaty itself. This is why Canada and the United States proposed that the conference deal with the definitions “Recognized Operating Agencies,” “Operating Agencies", and “Telecommunications” before any other work was done.

Definitions define exactly what is being covered and it is in the small turns of phrase, and the specificity (or lack of it) that marks out what will happen with the treaty in the real world.

For anyone that has sat through a big UN conference (the last big one on the Internet was in 2005 called WSIS), the discussions around use of a certain word or combination of words can be mind-numbingly dull. But WSIS wording is still used seven years later to win an argument. And let's not forget the ITRs being revised stem from 1988.

So definitions are key. The Russians for example are trying to define "Internet". There is also "fraud" and "spam". And one that will send shivers of fear down every Internet CEO's back: defining "personal data".

Charging and Accounting

This is the topic where there will be the most heated exchanges.

In a nutshell, some countries want to apply the traditional telecoms (think: telephone) pricing models onto the Internet. Nothing focuses the mind like billions of dollars in lost or gained revenue.

It is notable that the country that has been making the biggest noise about WCIT - the United States - has this issue of pricing as its number one priority.

It is no coincidence either that the ambassador (and so head of delegation) that has been specially chosen for WCIT, Terry Kramer, used to be a senior executive at Vodafone. Kramer is expected to have 101 reasons why the pricing model of the telephone should not apply to the Internet - and he may need them all.

Here's how it works

Very broadly, this is how telephone charging works at the moment. You call someone within your country and you (rather than the person you call) pay the bill to the carrier (AT&T etc). However if you call outside your country, it costs the company in the country money you are calling to connect the call.

In the same way it's unfair to charge someone for calling them, telco operators think it's unfair to have to pay the cost of someone else using their network. And so the originating carrier pays the other country's carrier (this is called "sender pays"), and they charge their customer the extra cost. These agreements are usually on a carrier-to-carrier basis and that's why international telephone rates vary so widely - it all depends on the deal struck.

Now, ideally, the other country's carrier would charge no more than what it cost them to connect the call. But of course in the real world, if the other company is obliged to pay them, they try to make as much money as possible. And that's why it is so ridiculously expensive to call abroad and whole markets exist to try to bring the cost down.

Nevertheless, this is a model that telecoms companies are used to and so happy with. They also make quite a lot of money from it. And so they want to extend it to the Internet - especially since services like Skype continue to cut away at their profits.

The Internet works almost the other way around. There are still many bilateral agreements between Internet providers but because of the different way that the Internet works (which is behind much of its success) these agreements have typically led to everyone agreeing not to charge one another anything.

The Internet works by breaking up data into small packets and then sending them by whatever route the network decides is the fastest. As a result, data sharing between companies is much more fluid with agreements reached very, very quickly. The end result is that this system would become enormously complex if you tried to apply old telecoms rules to it. It would add significant expensive and it would also damage the enormous flexibility that the Internet has and likely cause a lot of problems down the line.

So why are telecoms companies pushing for the old pricing model to be imposed?

Well, three reasons:

  1. They are not getting anywhere near as much revenue from the use of their networks. They used to make small fortunes from almost the exact same network; now they watch as Facebook and Google become huge, powerful companies on the back of data that is flowing across their networks.
  2. They need to invest in new infrastructure to deal with the increasing demand for data - something that has leaped thanks to online video. It is expensive to put new cables in the ground and the sea. So, at the same time as revenues go down, telecoms companies are having to spend more money building out their networks. This problem is particularly acute in poorer countries that don't have large telecoms networks in place.
  3. That's the way it's always been. Telecoms companies have been all-powerful for many decades, sharing extraordinary influence and wealth. Both are diminishing, and they don't like it. So they are using that influence to try to bend the rules of the game back to them.

If you're interested in understanding more about this, we would recommend Geoff Houston's article "Number misuse, telecommunications regulations, and WCIT".

Functioning of the conference

There are of course other points of disagreements but the two mentioned above are most significant. Which leads to the question: how will all this work?

The two working groups will try their best to reach agreement and will send back reports to Committee 5 on progress. Committee 5 will review these and occasionally send recommendations or questions up to the Plenary to discuss or comment on.

This is a relatively fluid process with meetings convened and disbanded according to what progress is being made or if discussions fail. Ultimately however the Plenary will decide what happens, and those below do the grunt work.

In terms of the politics, it is crucial for people to have chairs and vice-chairs at each point in the process to ensure that ideas aren't squashed or alternatively that ideas you don't agree with are pushed through. As a result there is a fine political judgment in every appointment.

It is no coincidence that the United States and Russia representatives are vice-chairs of the main conference. They represent the two extremes of opinions at WCIT and are also two of the most powerful and influential countries within the ITU. Neither could be chair, of course, because one would veto the other. The chair instead goes to the host country - part of the reason that governments spend so much time, effort and money running these largely thankless conferences.

The interesting compromises come in the form of who the chairs at the different levels are. Since Committee 5 is likely to be where the real substantive debate is had, it is telling that the chair is Joshua Peprah of Ghana.

Ghana has provided two contributions to the conference. One argues for efficient energy adoption standards - a win-win for the ITU and the world's governments. The other argues that the ITRs should be reviewed more frequently - every eight years rather than the 24 years since the ITRs were last reviewed.

All countries can pretty much agree with these goals. And so Ghana is given the position of sitting in the middle of disagreeing sides and trying to reach a compromise.

And it will be the African Region - which acts as a voting block and has also provided documents to the ITU as a group - that ultimately decides where the axe comes down on the many different aspects of the conference.

Europe will also be influential - and it is notable that the countries bandied together and effectively prevented the European Commission from representing them as a whole. European countries have a wide range of perspectives on telecoms issues, whereas the EC has tended to be relatively gung-ho on such issues, especially when it comes to the Internet.

By booting out the EC (which was subsequently invited in as an observer by the ITU's Secretary General), European countries have given themselves greater leeway during discussions.

Our predictions

Foolish as it may be, we have some predictions for what will happen between now and the end of WCIT. Here they are:

  • Nothing radical will appear in the ITRs. Instead it will be agreed that they will be reviewed in four or eight years' time and a range of working groups will be formed to work on various issues and report to the Council next year, take it to the ITU Plenipotentiary for initial review in 2014, and onto the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA) in 2016.
  • The United States will push its hand incredibly hard (bolstered by its huge delegation of industry representatives and over-excited civil society/Internet groups who have all persuaded each other of their own truth). It will threaten to take a reservation once too often and will end up being saved by either Canada or a European country.
  • The African contingent will get extra wording in about the importance of providing access to the developing world, but will fail in their efforts to get the rest of the world to put in any money for the effort.
  • The Committee 5 meetings will go on late into the night and the conference will stretch into Saturday.
  • There will be a two-hour argument about Palestine that will have nothing whatsoever to do with telecoms or WCIT but Middle East representatives won't be able to stop themselves from getting involved.
  • ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure will be forced to plea personally with the room to be reasonable, consider the larger picture, and tell delegates that the world is watching.
  • There will be an hour recess while everything that has been argued over for more than a year is finally agreed to in a private meeting between the main actors. What results is then green-lighted by everyone even though they aren't quite sure what the final text looks like.