WCIT goes dark: deadlock hits key telecoms conference

Chair leads even smaller group of regional representatives in crunch talks

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is going dark with just one day left to rewrite the international telecommunication regulations (ITRs) and a number of significant issues remaining unresolved.

Despite 1,700 participants representing 189 different countries and organizations, large sections of the text will be decided by a group of 24 regional representatives this afternoon.

The decision to call the closed meeting, without many of the issues ever having been discussed in plenary sessions, has been a conscious strategy adopted by the chair and ITU throughout the meeting.

But while that approach has kept embarrassing public fights to a minimum, it also raises serious questions over the ITU's processes and ability to act a global convener and resolver of modern telecoms issues, particularly when it comes to the Internet.

With just one day remaining to bring the seven pages of rules agreed in 1988 up to date, three key issues remain outstanding:

  1. Who precisely the regulations cover
  2. Whether the Internet will become a part of the regulations
  3. Whether charging systems covering use of global data networks will change

There is a clear split on each issue with Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Arab States and some African states on one side, and the United States, Canada, Europe and Australasia on the other.

The first group wants the ITRs updated to cover companies that use global data networks i.e. Internet companies. They want aspects of the Internet included, and they want traditional telecoms charging systems applied to modern data networks.

The second group thinks that a global treaty is not the right place to cover the Internet at all since the global network has grown up outside the ITRs. Pulling it under a treaty decided only by government representatives every 24 years would ruin the very nature of the Internet, they argue.

On a road to nowhere

Despite a week of face-to-face meetings, incorporating sub-committees, ad hoc groups and "informal discussions", the fundamental split between the two groups shows no signs of closing.

A number of abortive attempts have been made to bridge the gap, with conference chair, Mohamed Nasser Al-Ghanim of the United Arab Emirates, attempting to avoid public disagreement by running a series of closed meetings instead of open discussion in the main plenary sessions.

That strategy has consistently failed with meetings running until 2am last night and picked up again at 7am failing to produce any agreement.

But the chair has decided to stick with his approach and has further restricted the closed meeting to just 3-4 representatives from each regional group. That group will now attempt to reach agreement on the whole text in one afternoon, with a plenary session planned for 6.30pm.

This closed-doors approach is particularly problematic for a conference that has been widely criticized as being secretive while discussing issues that have a huge potential impact.

The ITU responded to that criticism by opening up its main sessions to webcasting and scribing, but many government representatives, unaccustomed to the sort of public accountability that the Internet makes possible, appear to have responded by not saying very little or nothing. Even private sector representatives invited onto national government delegations are required to say little or nothing of what they hear or think.

As a result, plenary sessions that are usually the lifeblood of such conferences have become little more than updates between closed meetings.

The withdrawn non-contribution

A second failed strategy by the host country was the introduction of a "compromise text" touted on Friday by both the UAE and ITU Secretary-General as a high-level approach that would enable agreement between the two sides.

That text was due to be provided to the conference on Monday but following a leak of its contents over the weekend was suddenly withdrawn. The document fell very heavily down on the side of group of countries led by Russia and caused an outcry from Western nations and Internet organizations.

It is also saw the Egyptian government - which was named as a signatory to the document - publicly condemning the document and coming out in favor of the second group of countries that argue the regulations should be high-level, not address the Internet and not impact the "multi-stakeholder" organizations that currently decide how the Internet evolves.

The good news and the end game

The good news is that while several key issues continue to provoke strong disagreement, a number of others that will have a positive impact on the world's consumers have reached agreement.

New text on landlocked countries and on roaming should see greater access as well as cheaper prices for millions of individuals. An effort to create a single global emergency number is also underway. A number of other issues - notably all relating to traditional telecoms - will also provide the ITU with an opportunity to paint the conference as a success.

Despite renewed promises from the chair that agreement has nearly been reached, the likelihood is that intractable differences will remain when the conference reconvenes this evening at 6.30pm.

In that case, unless the ITU goes the very unusual route of calling a vote, the status quo will prevail, and in so doing will please many of those countries that want the ITRs kept to a very limited basis.

The issue then will be whether the ITU and WCIT chair can keep a lid on pent-up frustration through tomorrow and Thursday.

The effort to discuss difficult Internet issues by the world's governments has lead to paralysis. And that is possibly the most eloquent explanation for why the ITRs should not include the Internet in any form.