At the first meeting of the International Telecommunications Union in 1865, 20 European states met to decide on the Morse Code as a common language for telegraph messages that would cross international borders.
But the world of communications has changed somewhat since that conference. For example, we've added the telephone, radio, television and even satellite communications.
This September, 1,200 delegates from 154 nations will meet in Geneva for another ITU meeting, a scheduled 10-week confab called the World Administrative Radio Conference of 1979. And at this year's meeting, an even newer element will be added to the world of communications: politics.
The stakes at this extremely important meeting are high: Who, if anyone, will control the world's airwaves for the next 20 years until the WARC again convenes?
"By the end of the century - this prediction may be made with confidence - no aspect of human society will fail to bear the imprint of the decisions made at the WARC of 1979," says a report from Kalba Bowen Associates, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm studying the conference and its implications.
Much has happened in the 20 years since the last WARC conference. For one thing, the number of countries attending this year's meeting is almost double the 84 at the last meeting. And satellite communications, for example, although now one of the more crucial forms of communication, did not exist in 1959.
At several number WARC conferences since 1959 dealing with specific issues, the preliminaries of what promises to be a first-class political bout at WARC '79 emerged.
For one thing, dozens of developing nations have let it be known that they aren't about to let the limited radio frequencies around the world continue to be gobbled up by those more advanced countries on a first-come, first-served basis.
Worried that there won't be any radio frequencies and satellite orbits left by the time they become advanced enough technologically to use them for their own domestic needs, these less-developed nations (LDCs) are favoring a new system of assigning frequencies and satellite orbits to all countries - even if they can't use them yet.
And if anyone else wants to use those valued frequencies until the country assigned to them is able to use them, the LDCs seem perfectly willing to rent them to others. For obvious reasons, though, such suggestions do little but raise the blood pressure of the representatives from the developed nations, like the U.S., who are seeking possible expansion for their rapidly growing communications needs.
"We could very well see the availability of communications services in this country greatly retarded," said Sen. Harrison Schmidt (R-N.M.). "This conference can affect the cost, and maybe even the capability, of communicating via satellite, via land-mobile systems like CB radio, and via many other allocations."
Schmidt fears, for example, that because of the growing strength of the one-nation, one-vote movement, WARC could become another Law of The Sea Conference and drag on for years, getting no closer to a collective position.
In fact, the LDC's have been doing a little organizing on their own. In various meetings around the world, the nonaligned nations have huddled to pool their interests and develop strategies for the conference.
Several battles are developing over how and where to cut up the huge communications pie. One can look at the communications spectrum as one large frequency that has been subdivided into many small bands with specialized uses. And many of the fights looming over the horizon will deal with how we should alter the existing subdivisions.
The U.S., for example, wants to expand what is perhaps the best-known subdivision here, the AM radio broadcasting band. Such a move would do a great deal to help foster U.S. government hopes to increase minority ownership of financially attractive broadcast properties by making some 700 more stations available across the country.
But in order to increase the size of one band, you must decrease the size of another. Consequently, other forms of communications - like marine communications - might experience more interference because of AM-band growth. For that reason the U.S. proposal seems in some trouble.
Such an increase in the AM band "would put the U.S. into frequencies we are using for navigation and sea services and would mean interference in those services and would mean interference in those services for Europeans," said West German communications official Rudolph Binz in a recent interview.
The U.S. also is seeking an increase of the short-wave frequency and a new special band for transmitting micro-wave power from space. The latter suggestion is opposed by those who generally favor decentralized power generation and who are concerned about the possibilities of military use of such a band.
Many of the LDCs fear "cultural imperialism" through control of the air-waves by the developed countries, according to Glen Robinson, chairman of the U.S. WARC delegation.
"(The developed nations) have 90 percent of the spectrum and 10 percent of the population," says Ali Shumo, a government communications official from the Sudan. "We have 90 percent of the spectrum. We want our shares."
Robinson is a former Federal Communications Commission member and now is a law professor at the University of Virginia. He said that putting together the 64-member (so far) delegation and trying to iron out the U.S. position on dozens of complex issues has been a challenge.
After overcoming initial concern that an outsider moving into the State Department on a part-time basis couldn't do the job adequately, Robinson is pressing ahead with considerable speed in preparing the U.S. delegation for what promises to be a tough, yet exciting, 10 weeks in Geneva. If things get hot, the conference could extend beyond the 10 weeks, he pointed out.
cI don't know how much unity there will be at the conference," Robinson said. "Once we get past the rhetorical breast-beating, we may see some progress toward a new world information order. There has already been some modest progress in the preliminary meetings."
Robinson described the conference as a "mosaic." He said "there is no big picture, just many individual treaties to be worked out. It all comes together to make the big picture, but each issue has to be dealt with separately."
There is no question that "we are going to have to give a little," Robinson said. But "we are trying to promote the idea that everybody can be accomodated," he added.
For one thing, the U.S. is promoting the idea of sharing frequencies. One way of shares, for example, would involve allowing developed countries to use frequencies that are allocated to LDCs until the LDCs are able to use them. This of course is slightly different from the suggestion from some LDCs that they could rent time on these airwaves.
Robinson understands the view of the LDCs. "They want to be guaranteed access when they mature," he said. "They want to make sure there is room at the inn when they get there."
But "our point is that we can't make guarantees," he continued. "Technology changes every year. In 1973, for example, one satellite carried 250 telephone circuits. Now each satellite can handle 24,000 circuits."
Robinson is the first to admit that "we don't know how large a group and how strong a bloc the nonaligned nations can put together. So far, "The number of countries marching together is small," he pointed out.
If the U.S. delegation doesn't hold its own in Geneva, WARC can have a tremendous direct impact on many forms of communication in the U.S. Private industry is clamoring to provide all kinds of new communications services through satellites, and the U.S. military has a great deal at stake for its armada of satellites.
"Frankly, some of the proposals give us heartburn," Robinson said. Among those proposals is one from some equatorial countries, including Colombia and Equador, that they be given what amounts to "air rights" over anything - including communications satellites - that flies over their territory.
The outcome of WARC could have a dramatic effect on the need to transmit health-care and educational public service information to out-of-the-way places such as Alaska.
Conflicting needs also have divided the U.S. delegation. Because of the quite different needs of the various segments of the U.S. group, significant work must be done to iron out a balanced U.S. position before the fall.
Some needs of the private-sector international broadcast community conflict with those of the U.S. military, for example, because they are competing for the same satellite capacity. The CB users don't want the expansion of the AM band called for by the FCC because it will cut down on their space; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is squared off against the Maritime/Mobile communications types; and the highly protected, FCC-regulated industries live in fear of Carter administration deregulation efforts being pushed by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Robinson has high hopes, however, that the conference will not degenerate into a political volleyball match. An early indicator will be the amount of time spent at the outset on such political problems as which delegations will be credentialed.
"I think we can come out with some good results," Robinson said. He said the toughest part of the job so far has been "devoting so much time to protecting my flank from snipers seeking political payoffs."
The irony of WARC is that the technology exists today to do almost anything in the field of communications, but the nations of the world have yet to be able to work out the politics, said Robinson's asistant at the State Department, Wilson Dizard.
Still, one wonders about new technology. One ITU working group, for example, has been working on a world telephone numbering system that would allow more and easier interaction among telephone systems.
The plan they are developing also would give consumers access to computers all over the world to use in their own homes, and even allow them to call up television programs from around the world on their home screen.
There is one slight problem, however, for those folks who already can't remember all the numbers in their lives. Everyone's new phone number will be 17 digits. CAPTION: Picture, WARC delegation Chairman Glen Robinson: sees fear of "cultural imperialism." By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post