Last month, for the first time in history, the world elected an American to head the United Nations organization for communications networks. Beginning in January, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will be led by Ms. Doreen Bogdan-Martin. What does the ITU do? In the ITU’s own words:
Founded in 1865 to facilitate international connectivity in communications networks, we allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide. Every time you make a phone call via the mobile, access the Internet or send an email, you are benefitting from the work of ITU.
The U.S. Congress over the last few sessions has proposed, and even passed, a number of bills directing the executive branch to ensure American leadership in 5G standards, particularly relative to China. The current Secretary-General of the ITU is Chinese. The stakes were high for the U.S. Delegation going into the ITU conference last month, the Plenipotentiary Meeting, held every four years to elect ITU leaders and establish the agenda for the next four years. Ms. Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who has been the Director of the ITU’s Development Bureau for the last four years, had one competitor for Secretary-General—a Russian. In 2022, an American losing to a Russian at a United Nations agency would have been disastrous.
Ms. Bogdan-Martin broke the glass ceiling of the UN’s oldest organization by becoming the first woman elected as its Secretary-General, let alone the first American. During her candidacy, she also effectively articulated a vision of an open, connected Internet that has increasingly been under attack by totalitarian regimes. The ITU’s website states that “ITU is committed to connecting all the world’s people—wherever they live and whatever their means. Through our work, we protect and support everyone’s right to communicate.” As Development Director, Ms. Bogdan-Martin cajoled the private sector to donate resources towards communications networks in developing countries, rather than championing mandates. She convinced enough of the 190-plus Members that she would work as the ITU’s overall manager and legal representative to pursue universal connectivity and freedom of expression. On September 29 in Bucharest, Romania, a majority of ITU Member States gave her their support, implicitly acknowledging that the U.S. can be better trusted with these goals than Russia.
Most Americans have probably never thought that an international forum would be necessary to manage telecommunications. But wireless communications ride on electromagnetic radio frequencies. Absent engineering, those airwaves wouldn’t stop at a country’s border. Satellite links can land in multiple countries. The ITU’s Radio Regulations are an international treaty with a Table of Frequency Allocations and technical rules including power limits, antenna pointing restrictions, etc., that ensure that a radio service of one country will not interfere with an allocated service of its neighboring country. The United States has a national security interest in ensuring the rest of the world has access to the internet and the platforms to support the free flow of information and stable economies. The ITU’s Telecommunications Standards Bureau and Development Bureau facilitate global accessibility, through harmonized communications standards and equipment economies of scale.
In Secretary-General Elect Bogdan-Martin, the United States—and indeed the rest of the world—now has a leader at the ITU helm who supports connectivity through private-public partnerships and not government dictates.
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