International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies – ICTs.

ITU was founded in Paris in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union. It took its present name in 1932, and in 1947 became a specialized agency of the United Nations. Although its first area of expertise was the telegraph, the work of ITU now covers the whole ICT sector, from digital broadcasting to the Internet, and from mobile technologies to 3D TV. An organization of public-private partnership since its inception, ITU currently has a membership of 193 countries and some 700 private-sector entities. ITU is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and has twelve regional and area offices around the world.[1]

First called the International Telegraph Union, the ITU was formed in 1865, 15 years before the invention of the radio, when a series of European states got together to regulate communications across borders. In 1942, the ITU became part of the wider United Nations family. Its current mandate calls on the organization to “ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs [information and communication technology] to underserved communities worldwide.” It does so through policy and regulatory activities and setting global standards and best practices for ICT services.

The ITU is made up of two types of members: traditional member states—193 countries—as well as 900 “sector members,” private sector corporations that have a seat at the decision making table. The ITU is overseen by a secretary-general (SG), currently Zhao Houlin of China, who is supported by a Secretariat responsible for the organization's workflow, representational, and coordination activities. The Secretariat works closely with the ITU Council, an elected body made up of 25 percent of member states, which works to link the ITU’s main meeting (the Plenipotentiary Conference) and the organization’s regular portfolio. The Council is elected from the membership body for four-year terms.

The SG is elected every four years by a majority-rule, secret ballot process. The elections occur in three stages, with the SG selection followed by races for deputy SG and sector directors. These “down-ballot” races are also important; because of the technical nature of the organization, many SGs come up through the ranks. Houlin was selected as SG during the 2014 Plenipotentiary, when he ran unopposed for the position, and won a second term in 2018. Prior to his election, Houlin was the deputy SG, following a long career at the ITU as a technical expert. The 2022 Plenipotentiary will result in the selection of a new SG starting in 2023, and Houlin cannot run again.

The current organizational budget for 2020 is $350 million, and it also makes almost $200 million each year through membership fees and project-specific contributions (assessed contributions). The ITU employs 700 full-time staff, of which 350 are professional grade (excluding support staff such as drivers, translators, etc.). As of 2016, of these 350 staff, 9 (2.6 percent) are U.S. citizens.

In addition to the General Secretariat and Council, the ITU has three main technical sectors: T, R, and D, each of which have different areas of responsibility. The ITU-Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) is responsible for setting international standards on issues such as internet connectivity and 5G technology. The ITU-Radiocommunication (ITU-R) manages radio systems, including satellite ownership and spectrum allocation. And the ITU-Development Sector (ITU-D) provides technical and capacity services for developing countries coming online in the digital space.[2]

ITU has three main areas of activity organized in ‘Sectors’ which work through conferences and meetings.

  • Radiocommunications: ITU's Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) coordinates this vast and growing range of radiocommunication services, as well as the international management of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits. An increasing number of players need to make use of these limited resources, and participating in ITU-R conferences

and study group activities – where important work is done on mobile broadband communications and broadcasting technologies such as Ultra HDTV and 3D TV – is becoming an ever-higher priority for both governments and industry players.

  • Standardization: ITU standards (called Recommendations) are fundamental to the operation of today’s ICT networks. Without ITU standards you couldn’t make a telephone call or surf the Internet. For Internet access, transport protocols, voice and video compression, home networking, and myriad other aspects of ICTs, hundreds of ITU standards allow systems to work – locally and globally. For instance, the Emmy award-winning standard ITU-T H.264 is now one of the most popular standards for video compression. In a typical year, ITU will produce or revise upwards of 150 standards covering everything from core network functionality to next-generation services such as IPTV.
  • Development: ITU's Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D) has a programme to offer you – whether you are interested in entering or expanding your presence in emerging markets, demonstrating global ICT leadership, learning how to put good policy into practice, or pursuing your mandate for corporate social responsibility. In an increasingly networked world, expanding access to ICTs globally is in everybody's interest. ITU champions a number of major initiatives which encompass ITU's internationally-accorded mandate to ‘bridge the digital divide’, such as its ITU Connect events or Connect a School, Connect a Community. ITU also regularly publishes the industry’s most comprehensive and reliable ICT statistics.[3]

In December 2012, the ITU facilitated The World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 (WCIT-12) in Dubai. WCIT-12 was a treaty-level conference to address International Telecommunications Regulations, the international rules for telecommunications, including international tariffs.[42] The previous conference to update the Regulations (ITRs) was held in Melbourne in 1988. In August 2012, Neaomy Claiborne of Northern California was reelected for a third term as liaison and legal advisor to the Secretariat General. ITU called for a public consultation on a draft document ahead of the conference. It is claimed the proposal would allow government restriction or blocking of information disseminated via the Internet and create a global regime of monitoring Internet communications, including the demand that those who send and receive information identify themselves. It would also allow governments to shut down the Internet, if it is believed that it may interfere in the internal affairs of other states, or that information of a sensitive nature might be shared. Telecommunications ministers from 193 countries attended the conference in Dubai. The current regulatory structure was based on voice telecommunications, when the Internet was still in its infancy. In 1988, telecommunications operated under regulated monopolies in most countries. As the Internet has grown, organizations such as ICANN have come into existence for management of key resources such as Internet addresses and domain names. Some outside the United States believe that the United States exerts too much influence over the governance of the Internet. Current proposals look to take into account the prevalence of data communications. Proposals under consideration would establish regulatory oversight by the UN over security, fraud, traffic accounting as well as traffic flow, management of Internet Domain Names and IP addresses, and other aspects of the Internet that are currently governed either by community-based approaches such as regional Internet registries, ICANN, or largely national regulatory frameworks. The move by the ITU and some countries has alarmed many within the United States and within the Internet community. Indeed, some European telecommunication services have proposed a so-called "sender pays" model that would require sources of Internet traffic to pay destinations, similar to the way funds are transferred between countries using the telephone. The WCIT-12 activity has been criticized by Google, which has characterized it as a threat to the " and open internet." On 22 November 2012, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging member states to prevent ITU WCIT-12 activity that would "negatively impact the internet, its architecture, operations, content and security, business relations, internet governance and the free flow of information online". The resolution asserted that "the ITU [...] is not the appropriate body to assert regulatory authority over the internet". On 5 December 2012, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing UN governance of the Internet by a rare unanimous 397–0 vote. The resolution warned that "... proposals have been put forward for consideration at the [WCIT-12] that would fundamentally alter the governance and operation of the Internet ... [and] would attempt to justify increased government control over the Internet ...", and stated that the policy of the United States is "... to promote a global Internet free from government control and preserve and advance the successful Multistakeholder Model that governs the Internet today." The same resolution had previously been passed unanimously by the upper chamber of the Congress in September. On 14 December 2012, an amended version of the Regulations was signed by 89 of the 152 countries. Countries that did not sign included the United States, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, India and the United Kingdom. The head of the U.S. delegation, Terry Kramer, said "We cannot support a treaty that is not supportive of the multistakeholder model of Internet governance". The disagreement appeared to be over some language in the revised ITRs referring to ITU roles in addressing unsolicited bulk communications, network security, and a resolution on Internet governance that called for government participation in Internet topics at various ITU forums. Despite the significant number countries not signing, the ITU came out with a press release: "New global telecoms treaty agreed in Dubai".[4]

See Also

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA)
American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII)


  1. History of International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
  2. ITU Structure
  3. What does ITU do? Devex
  4. World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 Wikipedia