The International Telecommunication Union

Since 1865, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been at the centre of advances in communications – from telegraphy through to the modern world of satellites, mobile phones and the Internet. The International Telecommunication Union or ITU (French Union Internationale des Télécommunications), originally the International Telegraph Union (French Union Télégraphique Internationale), is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is responsible for issues that concern information and communication technologies, an extensional term for information technology (IT) that stresses the role of unified communications and the integration of telecommunications (telephone lines and wireless signals) and computers, as well as necessary enterprise software, middleware, storage, and audiovisual systems, that enable users to access, store, transmit, and manipulate information. It is the oldest among all the fifteen specialised agencies of the United Nations.

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the ITU coordinates the shared global use of the radio spectrum, promotes international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, works to improve telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world, and assists in the development and coordination of worldwide technical standards. The ITU is active in areas including broadband Internet, latest-generation wireless technologies, aeronautical and maritime navigation, radio astronomy, satellite-based meteorology, convergence in fixed-mobile phone, Internet access, data, voice, TV broadcasting, and next-generation networks.

The International Telegraph Union

For thousands of years, the quickest method of sending complex messages over long distances was with a courier on horseback. At the end of the 18th century, Claude Chappe (December 25, 1763 – January 23, 1805) inaugurated a network of visual semaphore stations across France (the first practical telecommunications system of the industrial age, making Chappe the first telecom mogul with his “mechanical internet”). Then came the electrical revolution. Experiments were conducted in sending electric signals along wires, and in 1839, the world’s first commercial telegraph service opened in London with a system created by Charles Wheatstone (February 6, 1802 – October 19, 1875), an English scientist and inventor of many scientific breakthroughs of the Victorian era, best known for his contributions in the development of the Wheatstone bridge, originally invented by Samuel Hunter Christie (March 22, 1784 – January 24, 1865), which is used to measure an unknown electrical resistance, and as a major figure in the development of telegraphy. In the United States of America, Samuel Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) used the new Morse code to send his first telegraph message in 1844. Already in 1843, a precursor of the fax machine for transmitting images had been patented in the United Kingdom by Alexander Bain (June 11, 1818 – September 18, 1903).

Telegraph wires soon linked major towns in many countries. A submarine telegraph wire (coated in protective gutta-percha) was laid between Britain and France in 1850, and a regular service inaugurated the following year. In 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid. But there was a problem. Where lines crossed national borders, messages had to be stopped and translated into the particular system of the next jurisdiction. To simplify matters, regional agreements began to be forged, and in Europe, representatives of twenty States gathered in Paris at an International Telegraph Conference to find ways to overcome barriers and make services more efficient. They would create a framework to standardize telegraphy equipment, set uniform operating instructions, and lay down common international tariff and accounting rules.

On May 17, 1865, the first International Telegraph Convention was signed in Paris by its twenty founding members, and the International Telegraph Union (the first incarnation of ITU) was established to supervise subsequent amendments to the agreement. Only a decade later, the next leap forward in communications occurred with the patenting of the telephone in 1876. At the International Telegraph Conference held in Berlin in 1885, ITU began to draw up international legislation governing telephony.

Gradually, the range of radio signalling increased. The first experimental transmission of the human voice was achieved in 1900 by Reginald Fessenden (October 6, 1866 – July 22, 1932), who also made the world’s first broadcast of voice and music in 1906. However, problems occurred with international connections, as they had done in early telegraphy. The German Government called a Preliminary Radio Conference in Berlin in 1903 with the aim of establishing international regulations for radiotelegraph communications.

This preparatory event was followed in Berlin in 1906 by the first International Radiotelegraph Conference, attended by representatives of twenty-nine nations. It decided that the Bureau of ITU would act as the conference’s central administrator, and the Radiotelegraph Section of the Bureau began operation in May 1907. The 1906 conference produced the International Radiotelegraph Convention with an annex containing the first regulations in this field. These were expanded and revised by numerous subsequent conferences, and became known as the Radio Regulations. Today, given the multitude of wireless services, the regulations include more than one thousand pages of information on how the limited resource of radio-frequency spectrum – as well as satellite orbits – must be shared and used internationally.

Through the 1920s the use of radio grew rapidly, including for popular broadcasting. To improve the efficiency and quality of operation, the 1927 Washington conference allocated frequency bands to the various radio services (fixed, maritime and aeronautical mobile, broadcasting, amateur, and experimental).

The International Telecommunication Union

In 1932 at a conference in Madrid, it was decided that a new name would be adopted to reflect the full range of ITU’s responsibilities: International Telecommunication Union. The new name came into effect in January 1934. At the same time, the International Telegraph Convention of 1865 was combined with the International Radiotelegraph Convention of 1906 to form the International Telecommunication Convention. On November 15, 1947, an agreement between ITU and the newly created United Nations recognized ITU as the specialized agency for telecommunications. The agreement formally entered into force on January 1, 1949.

Outer space and satellites

The Space Age began on October 4, 1957 with the launch by the Soviet Union of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. Not long after, satellites became used for telecommunications. The passive Echo 1 was launched in 1960 by the United States of America, followed in 1962 by Telstar 1 (a joint French-UK-US project), the first communications satellite. The motion of these satellites had to be tracked as they crossed the sky; a more efficient and economical idea was that of the geostationary communications satellite, first proposed by writer Arthur C. Clarke in 1945. In 1964, following experiments with geosynchronous satellites, the first geostationary satellite was launched.

Like radio-frequency spectrum, the geostationary orbit around Earth is a limited natural resource; both need to be shared fairly and in a way that avoids interference. In 1963, ITU held an Extraordinary Administrative Conference for space communications, which allocated frequencies to the various services. Later conferences made further allocations and put in place regulations governing satellites’ use of orbital slots. As well as linking broadcasting and wired telephone systems, and providing navigation services, satellites are also used in mobile communications. Satellite phones, for example, can be vital in emergencies, or for areas without access to alternative networks. And in 1992, ITU made spectrum allocations for the first time to serve the needs of Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite (GMPCS).

ITU also looks to the needs of radio-astronomers and other space scientists, who conduct such important work as weather prediction and monitoring the Earth’s environment and climate. Climate change is a major theme of ITU’s work, as are emergency communications such as satellite-based disaster warning systems.

The ITU membership includes hundreds of private-sector organizations, as well as almost two hundred States. The world is becoming ever more reliant on telecommunication technologies, in every aspect of our lives. ITU’s role in supporting the smooth integration, expansion and sharing of each advance is more vital than ever before. ITU will continue to match its priorities and working methods to respond to the rapid changes in the global environment, as it has done for a century and a half.