Address: Pl. des Nations 1211, 1202 Genève, Switzerland
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a UN specialised agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) with a membership of 193 member states and over 900 companies, universities, and international and regional organisations. In general terms, the ITU focuses on three main areas of activity: Radiocommunications (harmonisation of the global radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits) through the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R); standardisation (development of international technical standards for the interconnection and interoperability of networks, devices, and services) through the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T); and development (working on, among a range of policy areas, improving secure access to ICTs in underserved communities worldwide) through the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D). The General Secretariat manages the intersectoral co-ordination functions, strategic planning, and corporate functions, as well as the administrative and financial aspects of the ITU’s activities. The ITU is also the organiser of the ITU Telecom events, leading tech events convening governments, major corporates, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to debate and share knowledge on key issues of the digital age, showcase innovation in exhibitions, and network and reward progress through an awards programme.
The ITU co-ordinates and organises the annual World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum (www.wsis.org.forum) that serves as a platform for stakeholders to co-ordinate, partner, and share the implementation of the WSIS Action Lines for achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Some of the ITU’s key areas of action include: radiocommunication services (such as satellite services, fixed, mobile, and broadcasting services), developing telecommunications networks (including next generation networks and future networks), and ensuring access to bridge the digital divide and addressing challenges in ICT accessibility. The ITU’s work supports: emerging technologies in fields such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT); access and digital inclusion; the accessibility of ICTs to persons with disabilities; digital health; ICTs and climate change; cybersecurity, gender equality; and child online protection, among others. These and many more ICT topics are covered both within the framework of radiocommunication, standardisation, and development work, through various projects, initiatives, and studies carried out by the organisation.
Digital policy issues
- Telecommunications infrastructure
Information and communication infrastructure development is one of the ITU’s priority areas. The organisation seeks to assist member states in the implementation and development of broadband networks, wired and wireless technologies, international mobile telecommunications (IMT), satellite communications, the IoT, and smart grids, including next generation networks, as well as in the provision of telecommunication networks in rural areas.
Through the IITU-R, the ITU is involved in the global management of the radio frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, used for telecommunications services, in line with the Radio Regulations. The ITU’s International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) have as an overall aim the facilitation of global interconnection and interoperability of telecommunication facilities.
The international standards developed by the ITU-T enable the interconnection and interoperability of ICT networks, devices, and services worldwide.
The ITU-D establishes an enabling environment and provides evidence-based policy-making through ICT indicators, and implements a host of telecommunications/ICT projects.
In the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ITU-D launched the Global Network Resiliency Platform (REG4COVID) to address the strain experienced by telecommunication networks, which are vital to the health and safety of people. The platform pools experiences and innovative policy and regulatory measures.
The impact statement for the Telecommunications Development Bureau’s (BDT) thematic priority on ’Network and Digital Infrastructure’ is: ‘Reliable Connectivity to Everyone’.
ITU-D Study Group 1 also focuses on various aspects related to telecommunication infrastructure, in particular: Question 1/1 on ‘Strategies and policies for the deployment of broadband in developing countries’; Question 2/1 on ‘Strategies, policies, regulations, and methods of migration and adoption of digital broadcasting and implementation of new services’; Question 4/1 on ‘Economic policies and methods of determining the costs of services related to national telecommunication/ICT networks’; Question 5/1 on ‘Telecommunications/ICTs for rural and remote areas’; and Question 6/1 on ‘Consumer information, protection and rights: Laws, regulation, economic bases, consumer networks’.
The ITU plays a key role in managing the radio spectrum and developing international standards for 5G networks, devices, and services, within the framework of the so-called IMT-2020 activities. The ITU-R study groups together with the mobile broadband industry and a wide range of stakeholders are finalising the development of 5G standards. The Detailed specifications of the radio interfaces of IMT-2020 are expected to be completed by 2020.
The activities in the field include the organisation of intergovernmental and multistakeholder dialogues, and the development and implementation of standards and regulations to ensure that 5G networks are secure, interoperable, and that they operate without interference.
The upcoming Sixth World Telecommunication/Information and Communication Technology Policy Forum (WTPF-21) will discuss how new and emerging digital technologies and trends are enablers of the global transition to the digital economy. 5G is one of the themes for consideration.
The ITU-R is co-ordinating international standardisation and identification of spectrum for 5G mobile development.
The ITU-T is playing a similar convening role for the technologies and architectures of non-radio elements of 5G systems. For example, ITU standards address 5G transport, with Passive Optical Network (PON), Carrier Ethernet, and Optical Transport Network (OTN), among the technologies standardised by ITU-T expected to support 5G systems. ITU standards for 5G networking address topics including network virtualisation, network orchestration and management, and fixed-mobile convergence. ITU standards also address machine learning for 5G and future networks, the environmental requirements of 5G, security and trust in 5G, and the assessment of 5G quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE).
The ITU-R manages the detailed co-ordination and recording procedures for space systems and earth stations. Its main role is to process and publish data and to carry out the examination of frequency assignment notices submitted by administrations for inclusion in the formal co-ordination procedures or recording in the Master International Frequency Register.
The ITU-R also develops and manages space-related assignment or allotment plans and provides mechanisms for the development of new satellite services by locating suitable orbital slots.
Currently, the rapid pace of satellite innovation is driving an increase in the deployment of non-geostationary satellite systems (NGSO). With the availability of launch vehicles capable of supporting multiple satellite launches, mega-constellations consisting of hundreds to thousands of spacecraft are becoming a popular solution for global telecommunications.
To this end, during the last World Radiocommunication Conference in 2019 (WRC-19), the ITU established regulatory procedures for the deployment of NGSOs, including mega-constellations in low Earth orbit.
Regarding climate change, satellite data is today an indispensable input for weather prediction models and forecast systems used to produce safety warnings and other information in support of public and private decision-making.
The ITU develops international standards contributing to the environmental sustainability of the ICT sector, as well as other industry sectors applying ICTs as enabling technologies to increase efficiency and innovate their service offerings. The latest ITU standards in this domain address sustainable power feeding solutions for IMT-2020/5G networks, energy-efficient data centres capitalising on big data and AI, and smart energy management for telecom base stations.
Emergency telecommunications is an integral part of the ITU’s mandate. In order to mitigate the impact of disasters, timely dissemination of authoritative information before, during, and after disasters is critical.
Emergency telecommunications play a critical role in disaster risk reduction and management. ICTs are essential for monitoring the underlying hazards and for delivering vital information to all stakeholders, including those most vulnerable, as well as in the immediate aftermath of disasters for ensuring timely flow of vital information that is needed to co-ordinate response efforts and save lives.
The ITU supports its member states in the four phases of disaster management:
1. Design and implementation of national emergency telecommunications plans (NETPs), which include national policies and procedures as well as governance to support and enable the continued use of reliable and resilient ICT networks, services, and platforms for disaster management and risk reduction.
2. Development of tabletop simulation exercises to help build capacity at a national level to improve the speed, quality, and effectiveness of emergency preparedness and response, allowing stakeholders to test and refine emergency telecommunication plans, policies and procedures, and to verify whether ICT networks, redundant telecommunications capacities, personnel, as well as other telecommunication systems are in place and ready to be used for disaster response.
3. Design and implementation of multi-hazard early warning systems (MHEWS), including the common alerting protocol (CAP), which monitor the underlying hazards and exchange emergency alerts and public warnings over all kinds of ICT networks, allowing a consistent warning message to be disseminated simultaneously over many different warning systems, providing communities at risk with crucial information to take urgent actions to save their lives and livelihoods.
4. Development of guidelines and other reports on the use of ICTs for disaster management to help countries be better prepared for disaster response at a time when the frequency, intensity, and human and economic impact of disasters is on the rise worldwide.
The ITU’s activities in the field of radiocommunications make an invaluable contribution to disaster management. They facilitate the prediction, detection, and alerting through the co-ordinated and effective use of the radio-frequency spectrum and the establishment of radio standards and guidelines concerning the usage of radiocommunication systems in disaster mitigation and relief operations.
ITU standards offer common formats for the exchange of all-hazard information over public networks. They ensure that networks prioritise emergency communications. And they have a long history of protecting ICT infrastructure from lightning and other environmental factors. In response to the increasing severity of extreme weather events, recent years have seen ITU standardisation experts turning their attention to ‘disaster relief, network resilience and recovery’. This work goes well beyond traditional protections against environmental factors, focusing technical mechanisms to prepare for disasters and respond effectively when disaster strikes.
ITU standards now offer guidance on network architectures able to contend with sudden losses of substantial volumes of network resources. They describe the network functionality required to make optimal use of the network resources still operational after a disaster. They offer techniques for the rapid repair of damaged ICT infrastructure, such as means to connect the surviving fibres of severed fibre-optic cables. And they provide for ‘movable and deployable ICT resource units’ – emergency containers, vehicles, or hand-held kits housing network resources and a power source – to provide temporary replacements for destroyed ICT infrastructure.
The ITU is also supporting an ambitious project to equip submarine communications cables with climate and hazard-monitoring sensors to create a global real-time ocean observation network. This network would be capable of providing earthquake and tsunami warnings, as well as data on ocean climate change and circulation. This project to equip cable repeaters with climate and hazard-monitoring sensors – creating ‘Science Monitoring And Reliable Telecommunications (SMART) cables’ – is led by the ITU/WMO/UNESCO-IOC Joint Task Force on SMART Cable Systems, a multidisciplinary body established in 2012.
In the ITU-D, a lot of effort is directed at mainstreaming disaster management in telecommunications/information and communication technology projects and activities as part of disaster preparedness. This includes infrastructure development, and the establishment of enabling policy, legal, and regulatory frameworks. The ITU also deploys temporary telecommunications/ICT solutions to assist countries affected by disasters. After providing assistance for disaster relief and response, ITU undertakes assessment missions to affected countries aimed at determining the magnitude of damages to the network through the use of geographical information systems. On the basis of its findings, the ITU and the host country embark on the resuscitation of the infrastructure while ensuring that disaster resilient features are integrated to reduce network vulnerability in the event of disasters striking in the future.
- Report: Disruptive technologies and their use in disaster risk reduction and management. (2019)
- The Global Forum on Emergency Telecommunications (GET-19), took place on 6-8 March 2019, Balaclava, Mauritius.
- National Emergency Telecommunication Plans
- Emergency Telecommunication Simulation Exercises
- Study Question 5/2: Utilizing telecommunications/ICTs for disaster risk reduction and management (2014-2017)
The ITU is also part of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a global network of organisations that work together to provide shared communications services in humanitarian emergencies.
- Artificial intelligence
The ITU works on the development and use of AI to ensure a sustainable future for everyone. To that end, it convenes intergovernmental and multistakeholder dialogues, develops international standards and frameworks, and helps in capacity building for the use of AI.
AI and machine learning are gaining a larger share of the ITU standardisation work programme in fields such as network orchestration and management, multimedia coding, service quality assessment, operational aspects of service provision and telecom management, cable networks, digital health, environmental efficiency, and autonomous driving.
The ITU organises the annual AI for Good Global Summit, which aims to connect innovators in the field of AI with public and private sector decision-makers to develop AI solutions that could help in achieving the SDGs.
The ITU has launched a global AI repository to identify AI related projects, research initiatives, think-tanks, and organisations that can accelerate progress towards achieving the SDGs.
Open ITU platforms advancing various aspects of AI and machine learning include:
- The ITU Focus Group on ‘Machine Learning for Future Networks including 5G’, which is defining the requirements of machine learning as they relate to interfaces, protocols, algorithms, data formats, and network architectures. The ITU has launched the ITU AI/ML in 5G Challenge: A competition for which hundreds of professionals and students from over 50 countries have signed up.
- The ITU Focus Group on ‘Environmental Efficiency for AI and other Emerging Technologies’ will benchmark best practices and describe pathways towards a standardised framework for assessing the environmental aspects of adopting emerging technologies.
- The ITU Focus Group on ‘AI for Health’, driven in close collaboration by the ITU and the World Health Organization (WHO), is working towards the establishment of a framework and associated processes for the performance benchmarking of ‘AI for Health’ solutions.
- The ITU Focus Group on ‘AI for Autonomous and Assisted Driving’ is working towards the establishment of international standards to monitor and assess the behavioural performance of the AI ‘drivers’ in control of automated vehicles.
- The new Global Initiative on ‘AI and Data Commons’, established in January 2020, aims to support AI for Good projects in achieving global scale. The initiative will offer assemblies of resources to launch new AI projects aligned with the SDGs, and scale them up quickly.
The ITU, through its Development Sector, also holds an annual meeting for all telecommunication regulators on the occasion of the Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR), which discusses and establishes a regulatory framework for all technologies including AI, and addresses this issue at its two Study Groups. Several areas under ITU-D Study Groups 1 and 2 explore applications of AI in various domains to support sustainable development.
- Critical internet resources
Over the years, the ITU has adopted several resolutions that deal with Internet technical resources, such as: Internet Protocol-based networks (Resolution 101 (Rev. Dubai, 2018)), IPv4 to IPv6 transition (Resolution 180 (Rev. Dubai, 2018)), and internationalised domain names (Resolution 133 (Rev. Dubai, 2018)). The ITU has also adopted a resolution on its role in regard to international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet and the management of Internet resources, including domain names and addresses (Resolution 102 (Rev. Dubai, 2018)). In addition, the ITU Council has set up a Working Group on International Internet-related Public Policy Issues, tasked with identifying, studying, and developing matters related to international Internet-related public policy issues. This Working Group also holds regular online open public consultations on specific topics to give all stakeholders from all nations an opportunity to express their views with regard to the topic(s) under discussion.
The ITU is also the facilitator of WSIS Action Line С2 - Information and communication infrastructure.
- Digital standards
International standards provide the technical foundations of the global ICT ecosystem.
Presently, 95% of international traffic runs over optical infrastructure built in conformance with ITU standards. Video now accounts for over 80% of all Internet traffic; this traffic relies on the ITU’s Primetime Emmy winning video-compression standards.
ICTs are enabling innovation in every industry and public-sector body. The digital transformation underway across our economies receives key support from ITU standards for smart cities, energy, transport, healthcare, financial services, agriculture, and AI and machine learning.
ICT networks, devices, and services interconnect and interoperate thanks to the efforts of thousands of experts who come together on the neutral ITU platform to develop international standards known as ITU-T Recommendations.
Standards create efficiencies enjoyed by all market players, efficiencies, and economies of scale that ultimately result in lower costs to producers and lower prices to consumers. Companies developing standards-based products and services gain access to global markets. And by supporting backward compatibility, ITU standards enable next-generation technologies to interwork with previous technology generations; this protects past investments while creating the confidence to continue investing in our digital future.
The ITU standardisation process is contribution-led and consensus-based: Standardisation work is driven by contributions from ITU members and consequent decisions are made by consensus. The ITU standardisation process aims to ensure that all voices are heard and that resulting standards have the consensus-derived support of the diverse and globally representative ITU membership.
ITU members develop standards year-round in ITU-T Study Groups. Over 4000 ITU-T Recommendations are currently in force, and over 300 new or revised ITU-T Recommendations are approved each year.
For more information on the responsibilities of ITU study groups, covering the ITU-T study groups as well as those of ITU’s radiocommunication and development sectors (ITU-R and ITU-D), see the ITU backgrounder on study groups.
The ITU World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA) is the governing body of ITU’s standardisation arm (ITU-T). It is held every four years to review the overall direction and structure of the ITU-T. This conference also approves the mandates of the ITU-T Study Groups (WTSA Resolution 2) and appoints the leadership teams of these groups.
- Internet of things
The ITU develops international standards supporting the co-ordinated development and application of IoT technologies, including standards leveraging IoT technologies to address urban-development challenges.
The ITU also facilitates international discussions on the public policy dimensions of smart cities, principally within the United for Smart Sustainable Cities Initiative, an initiative supported by 17 UN bodies with the aim of achieving SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities).
ITU standards have provided a basis for the development of ‘Key Performance Indicators for Smart Sustainable Cities’. More than 100 cities worldwide have adopted the indicators as part of a collaboration driven by the ITU within the framework of the U4SSC initiative.
U4SSC prizes learning from experience and sharing lessons learnt. The new U4SSC implementation programme supports the new partnerships driving smart city projects. As the implementation arm of U4SSC, the programme aims to enact the lessons learned in U4SSC’s work.
The range of application of the IoT is very broad – extending from smart clothing to smart cities and global monitoring systems. To meet these varied requirements, a variety of technologies, both wired and wireless, are required to provide access to the network.
Alongside ITU-T studies on the IoT and smart cities, the ITU-R conducts studies on the technical and operational aspects of radiocommunication networks and systems for the IoT. The spectrum requirements and standards for IoT wireless access technologies are being addressed in the ITU-R, as follows:
- harmonisation of frequency ranges, technical and operating parameters
- used for the operation of short-range devices
- standards for wide area sensor and actuator network systems
- spectrum to support the implementation of narrowband and broadband machine-type communication infrastructures
- support for massive machine-type communications within the framework of the standards and spectrum for IMT-Advanced (4G) and IMT-2020 (5G)
- use of fixed-satellite and mobile-satellite communications for the IoT
ITU-D Study Group 2 Question 1/2 (‘Creating smart cities and society: Employing information and communication technologies for sustainable social and economic development’) includes case studies on the application of the IoT, and identifying the trends and best practices implemented by member states as well as the challenges faced, in order to support sustainable development and foster smart societies in developing countries.
New ITU standards for blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) address the requirements of blockchain in next-generation network evolution and the security requirements of blockchain, both in terms of blockchain’s security capabilities and security threats to blockchain.
The ITU reports provide potential blockchain adopters with a clear view of the technology and how it could best be applied. Developed by the ITU Focus Group on Application of Distributed Ledger Technolog