Ofcom at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

Published: 30 January 2020
Last updated: 16 March 2023

Ofcom represents the UK Government in the ITU and is known as the UK Administration.

The ITU, based in Geneva, is an international organisation within the United Nations where Member States and business coordinate global telecom networks and services. It is a forum where members cooperate to achieve more efficient use of spectrum resources for global telecommunications.

The ITU legal framework is based on:

  • The Constitution and Convention of the ITU, signed in 1992 which came into force on 1 July 1994 and has since been amended every 4 years at Plenipotentiary Conferences.
  • The Administrative Regulations, which comprise the Radio Regulations and the International Telecommunication Regulations, which complement the Constitution and Convention.

The ITU is unusual among such international organisations in that it was founded on the principle of cooperation between governments and the private sector. It has a membership encompassing telecommunication policy-makers and regulators, network operators, equipment manufacturers, hardware and software developers, regional standards-making organisations and financing institutions.

The ITU's activities, policies and strategic direction are determined and shaped by the industry it serves. The duties of the ITU include allocating spectrum (including satellite orbit positions) so as to avoid harmful interference, improving the use made of spectrum and orbits, facilitating world-wide standardisation and delivering technical assistance to developing countries.

The ITU’s objectives are to promote:

  • the development, efficient operation and general availability of telecommunications facilities and services, while maintaining and extending international cooperation for the improvement and rational use of telecommunications;
  • the development of telecommunications in developing countries, including the extension of beneficial telecommunications globally; and
  • the adoption of a broader approach to telecommunications issues in the global information economy and society.

The ITU is organised internally around three sectors, each having its own programme of conferences and study group work:

Radiocommunication (ITU-R)

Telecommunications Development (ITU-D)

Telecommunications Standardization (ITU-T)

The Plenipotentiary Conference is the is the supreme policy-making body of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Held every four years, the Conference sets the Union's general policies, adopts four-year strategic and financial plans and elects the senior management team of the organisation and the Council members. It also amends the Union’s Constitution and Convention, as required, at each Conference. The last ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-14) was held in Busan, Republic of Korea in October and November 2014. Malcolm Johnson of the UK was elected Deputy Secretary-General. The next one (PP-15) is scheduled for the last quarter of 2018 in the United Arab Emirates.

The role of the Council is to consider, in the interval between Plenipotentiary Conferences (PP), broad telecommunication policy issues and to ensure the smooth day-to-day running of the Union for example by coordinating work programmes, approving budgets and controlling finances. It consists of no more than 25 per cent of the total number of Member States (currently a total of 46 Member States sit on the Council) and members are elected at the PP on a regional basis. The Council meets annually. The UK has not held a seat on the Council since 2002 and therefore attends as an observer. In between the annual meetings, work is progressed through a number of working groups which deal with specific issues, such as the implementation of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) activities.

The ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) plays a vital role in the global management of the radio frequency spectrum and satellite orbits that ensure the safety of life on land, at sea and in the skies. These are limited natural resources which are increasingly in demand from a large and growing number of services such as mobile services, broadcasting, amateur, satellite communications, space research, emergency telecommunications, meteorology, global positioning systems, communications supporting infrastructure, environmental monitoring and transport services. The main aim of the ITU-R is to ensure the interference-free operation of radiocommunication systems across the globe. This is achieved through the implementation of the Radio Regulations (RRs) and Regional Agreements, and the efficient and timely update of these instruments through the processes of the World and Regional Radiocommununication Conferences. In addition, ITU-R ´Recommendations´ give further detail on the use of spectrum which is intended to ensure the necessary performance and quality in operating radiocommunications systems. It also seeks ways and means to conserve spectrum and ensure flexibility for future expansion, new technological developments and the equitable use of the geostationary satellite orbit.

The Radio Regulations (RRs), which have the status of an international intergovernmental treaty, provide a framework for the use of the radio frequency spectrum and satellite orbits. It should be noted that the Member States of the European Union have entered a declaration at all ITU Conferences since 1992 stating that they will only implement the RRs insofar as they are consistent with EU treaties. To keep pace with the fast development of technologies and the consequent convergence of services and technologies, the Radio Regulations are revised every three to four years at the World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC).

The last WRC was held in January/February 2012 in Geneva (WRC-12). The main outcomes were:

  • Discussions on future proposals for the 700 MHz band
  • A streamlining of satellite regulations to bring some clarity to the international rules applied
  • Spectrum identified for the safe operation of unmanned aircraft systems
  • Protection of the new European global navigation system (GALILEO)
  • A new allocation for the amateur service
  • Agreement on a future agenda item to address the spectrum requirements for mobile broadband

The next WRC is scheduled for November 2015 (WRC-15) in Geneva and the preparatory work is under way.
The technical work of the ITU-R is managed through its Study Groups. There are currently six of these, with each covering a particular area of radio-frequency spectrum use and the use of satellite orbits.

The current Director of the ITU-R is Mr. Fran├žois Rancy (France). Mr. Rancy was elected by the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in 2010 to the post of Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau (BR) of the International Telecommunication Union and took office on 1 January 2011. He has now begun a second term following his re-election at the Plenipotentiary Conference in 2014.

deals with the development of international standards encompassing all fields of electronic communications from core network functionality and broadband to next generation services like IPTV. The mission of the ITU-T is to provide a unique worldwide venue where industry and government work together to foster the development and use of interoperable, non-discriminatory and demand-driven international standards. The technical work of the ITU-T is managed through Study Groups which undertake technical studies in a particular area of telecommunication standardisation. Each Study Group is split into a small number of Working Parties. Current priority areas include next generation networks, IPTV, home networking, accessibility, emergency telecommunications, climate change and meeting the needs of developing countries.

The Telecommunications Standardization Bureau (TSB) provides support to the Study Groups and manages promotion, workshops, membership, documents, finance and the website.

The World Telecommunications Standardization Assembly (WTSA) defines general policy, working methods and procedures for ITU-T. WTSAs are convened every four years and determine, inter alia, the strategy, policies and work programme of the ITU telecoms sector.

The last WTSA took place in November 2012 in Dubai (WTSA-12) where the following was discussed:

  • The establishment of an ITU-T Strategic and Structural Review Committee
  • An unsuccessful proposal for ITU to become an IP Address Registry
  • Telecommunications/ICTs and climate change
  • Further facilitation for developing countries to become engaged in standardisation issues
  • Review of study group activities

The general principles relating to the provision and operation of international telecommunications are contained in the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). The ITRs are a treaty level document and can only be amended at a World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). A WCIT took place in December 2012 (WCIT-12) in Dubai, but the UK along with all European Member States, the US, Canada, Japan and several other countries did not sign the final text.

The UK has an established process for preparation of the UK position for ITU-T meetings. Ofcom chairs the ITU-T Coordination Committee which has responsibility for the overall UK policy for ITU-T and coordinating the UK positions for the Telecommunications Standardization Advisory Group (TSAG) and WTSA. This Committee appoints the chairs of UK coordination committees for each Study Group, who are responsible for reaching a UK consensus for each Study Group meeting. In general, membership of these committees is restricted to UK Sector Members of the ITU and Associates.

Chaesub Lee (Republic of Korea) was elected to the position of Director of ITU-T at the Plenipotentiary Conference in October 2014.

The mission of the ITU-D is to promote the right of people across the globe to communicate through access to infrastructure, information and communication services. ITU-D also acts as an executing agency implementing projects under the United Nations or other funding arrangements.

Some of the issues the sector is working on include:

The Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau is Mr Brahima Sanou (Burkina Faso), who was elected at the Plenipotentiary Conference 2010, and re-elected for a second four-year term in 2014. Ofcom leads for the UK at ITU-D meetings.

The World Telecommunications Development Conference (WTDC) agrees on development priorities and seeks to bridge the digital divide created by the rapid expansion of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Another objective of the Conference is to promote international cooperation and partnerships that can sustain and strengthen telecommunication infrastructure and institutions in developing countries.

The last WTDC (WTDC-14) took place in the World Trade Centre in central Dubai; the same venue as for WTSA-12 and WCIT-12. It was very busy with over 1300 participants, including 1100 government delegates from 137 countries and about 200 representatives from public and private sector entities and regional/international organisations. The five members of the ITU Senior Management Team were present throughout, as were many of the candidates for the new Senior Management Team to be elected at Plenipot (PP-14) in October 2014. The main outcomes of the Conference were:

  • Adoption of the ‘Dubai Declaration’ – a high level Statement of the strategic objectives and priorities of the ITU-D in order to achieve its Mission
  • Adoption of the Dubai Action Plan aligning the work of the ITU-D with the strategic objectives of the ITU using a results-based management approach setting out outputs, outcomes and key performance indicators (KPIs) for each objective
  • Agreement on ITU-D’s Contribution to the ITU Strategic Plan for 2016-2019 based on the objectives, priorities and outputs in the Dubai Declaration and Action Plan
  • Agreement of the ‘Regional initiatives’
  • New and modified Resolutions and Recommendations (seven new Resolutions, one new Recommendation and six Resolutions abrogated)
  • Some reorganisation and rationalisation of the work between the two ITU-D Study Groups
  • Agreement of new and revised Questions to be studied during the next study period
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