U.N. body to consider global telecommunications policies

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Delegates from nearly 200 countries will spend a month in Minneapolis, helping shape the future of Internet access and international telephone calls.
The International Telecommunication Union, a Geneva-based United Nations agency, is holding the four weeks of talks that could set the tone for communications regulation and policy making around the world.
Vice President Al Gore, who has encouraged countries to develop their own advanced telecommunications systems as a way to spur economic growth, is to address the opening session of the ITU’s 15th Plenipotentiary Conference on Monday afternoon.
The 1,600 delegates are likely to discuss whether Internet information will continue to flow cost-free across national borders, whether countries may limit Internet access and whether there should be uniform charges for international telephone calls.
The participants will set the conference agenda. Although discussions could lead to future policy changes, no policy votes are expected at the conference, which continues through Nov. 6.
Debate is expected on several policy issues, including:
ù The ITU’s regulatory role, if any, over the Internet. The ITU now largely deals with technical issues rather than issues of content and pricing.
ù Whether the ITU should settle disputes between international phone companies over the rates they pay one another to end calls in each other’s countries. Carriers now resolve their own disputes or take issues to their governments for resolution.
ù Whether the ITU should develop a single standard or multiple standards so wireless communications systems can communicate in more than one country and with one another.
“The most important thing to have when people leave Minneapolis is knowing that the ITU has a good strategic plan for the future. If not, the ITU could become irrelevant as countries move to a more competitive era,” said Bill Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
The United States generally supports competitive telecommunications policies which, in theory, would mean lower prices for consumers worldwide for phone, paging, messaging and other communications services.
Kennard also said he wants private companies to become more involved with the ITU, providing input on everything from setting worldwide technical standards for communications equipment to making more efficient use of the public airwaves.
“It is an extraordinary event. You’re going to have the senior people from every government in the world in Minneapolis,” said Scott Blake Harris, a former FCC executive and global telecommunications expert.
“A lot of what takes place is not just the hard decisions. The vice president’s opening speech can set the tone for the entire gathering,” Harris said.
“If delegates walk out of that meeting thinking private investment, competition, open markets, that is as likely to be as important as any individual decision” made by delegates later, he said.