Lost in the maelstrom of political activity, a little-noticed reference in paragraph 276 of the final document of the recent meeting in Cuba of nonaligned nations actually warns of the next battlefield on which the developing and nonaligned countries will engage their industrialized counterparts.
It is a reference to the World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC) that is scheduled to open in Geneval tomorrow -- a little-known, 10-week conclave that will have a profound effect on the world's use of the airwaves for the next two decades.
"The conference (of nonaligned countries). . .calls upon all governments of nonaligned and other developing countries to cooperate at (WARC)," the reference said. "In view of the great importance attached by the nonaligned countries to the subject matter of this conference, the heads of state/government decided that it was essential that its chairman should come from a nonaligned country."
It is a fitting notation, and fair warning that the developing countries have come of age in the telecommunications world and are now a force to be reckoned with. More than that, they now realize that they have the power to exert great influence over the communications services that will -- or will not -- be made available to everyone in even the most powerful nations.Since technological restrictions keep the number of available slots on the radio bands limited, a block of votes from several developing countries could decide, for example, whether there will be 700 or more AM radio stations in the United States.
The International Telecommunication Union has sponsored WARC conferences at approximately 20-year intervals since 1865, when 20 European states met to adopt the Morse code as a uniform telegraphic code for international communications.
But until this year, WARC conferences have been little more than old-boy-club meetings of the top communications technicians from the most advanced countries who quietly discussed problems and breakthroughs in communications, and how they best could serve their respective countries.
Times have changed, and the number of countries participating in WARC 1979 is almost double the 87 that attended WARC 1959. In addition, virtually all of the newer member countries are lesser developed countries with sharply different needs and priorities than the developed nations.
The communications business also has changed since 1959, when the sky had yet to be littered with even its first communications satelite. Technology is developing so quickly that some forms of communications that didn't exist in 1959 already are obsolete. And international cooperation is needed now more than ever to insure that radio signals don't interfere with each other.
The U.S. has sent a 65-person delegation with 36 additional technical and administrative staffers to the conference, under the direction of delegation chairman Glen Robinson, a University of Virginia Law Professer and former Federal Communications Commission member signed on by the State Department for this purpose.
Armed with 2,000 pages of position papers on all major issues which have been worked on by sub-committees for years, the delegation -- made up of representatives from all segments and interest groups, ranging from the government to consumer groups -- is prepared to haggle over even the most technically difficult issue.
But the message from Cuba -- and at other times from other parts of the world -- is that the WARC won't be limited to technical issues. The knife slicing up the radio band will have two edges, technical and political.
Third World nations have watched for years as the industrial giants have grabbed the frequencies and bands they needed for whatever services they sought to develop. Now, as the limits of technology have crept up to the point where the tele-communications spectrum is becoming crowded, the developing nations have begun to call for a "New World Information Order."
"The U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the two most technologically developed countries, have 15 percent of the world population and use 50 percent of the world broadcast spectrum," said Thomas A. Hart, Jr., treasurer of the National Black Media Coalition. Consequently a confrontation is brewing be tween those wishing to preserve the present structure and the new countries who want to be assigned portions of the radio band now even though they aren't equipped yet to use them, he added.
The U.S. policy is to seek maximum usage of the airwaves, to allow those who can use the spectrum now to do so and to work out a sharing program when others are ready. But that concept is viewed with skepticism, to say the least, by many Third World nations fearful that what they give up today, they never will be able to retrieve. The U.S. on the other hand, worries that orbital positions set aside today may never be used, placing unfair burdens on the remaining part of the spectrum.
Despite U.S. efforts to keep the WARC on a technical track, there are increasing indications that politics not only will be present, but will play a key role from the opening gavel. The suggestion from Cuba that the chairman of the conference come from a nonaligned nation already has had its effect. The leading candidate for the chairmanship had been a New Zealander that the "old boys" had agreed upon. But now, there is a serious challenge from an Indian candidate, as well as several other nonaligned contenders.
There are also several looming credentials fights, with the Arab countries likely to challenge the seating of the Egyptian delegation as well as the Israelis. And whether or not the South African or Cambodian delegations should be seated are also hot topics.
And now Costa Rica is sponsoring a move to have a general political debate at the opening of the conference, thus forcing the convention to deal immediately with the very issues the U.S. doesn't want to discuss at all.
Politics is more of a problem at the WARC for a country such as the U.S. than it is for a less developed country for one glaring reason: The U.S. delegation has representatives of the many segments of its society that have a piece of the telecommunications pie. The military, private industry, consumer groups and the government regulatory bodies all have different priorities, thus making it extremely difficult for the U.S. to take a political stand agreed upon even by everyone in its own delegation.
But in the case of most developing countries, communications is in the hands of one entity: the government. And the political positions of those countries' delegations are set by their governments. Thus they can present a more united front and are in better positions to negotiate than the U.S., which must worry about its many constituencies.
The U.S. has set certain overall objectives for the WARC. It is a delegation goal, for example, "to maintain those procedures which provide maximum flexibility and adaptability to changing needs." There is also support to strengthen the ITU'S role as the international organization responsible for implementing WARC decisions.
As for specifics, the U.S. has proposed the following:
Expanding Am broadcasting in the low-frequency and medium-frequency range to accomodate 700 new radio stations.
Sharing the UHF portion of the band now used mostly for television with land-mobile radio users. This proposal has met with opposition from Canada, which fears that U.S. mobile land users will interfere with their broadcast band.
Increasing significantly in high frequency (HF) bands international broadcasting for such groups as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and maritime mobile services, with more accomodation for amateur services. Such expansion, however, is sharply opposed by developing countries which still use HF for such basic services as domestic telephone systems. The developing countries fear U.S. proposals to share this portion of the band because they feel they don't have the technical know how to ensure themselves of adequate representation in the sharing process.
Expanding the ultra high frequency (UHF) realm to allow such communications services as CB radio, mobile telephones and microwave relay to grow.The U.S. also has proposed "a critically important frequency allocation to accomodate a new satelite navigation system that promises to revolutionize radio-navigation through the use of a 24-satellite system providing constant position information to ships and aircraft." Further support is being sought to permit two-way satellite communication in the UHF spectrum for such things as the Post Office's electronic mail program, and satellite monitoring of weather conditions by scientists.
Approving a special allocation for a satellite information-gathering system, a Department of Defense request that is being supported only by the NATO countries, who are tied to our defense system.
These are just some of the hundreds of specific proposals floating around the WARC. There can be many winners and losers after the dust settles at WARC 79.
Huge companies in need of their own private international communications systems could be affected tremendously. Banks, transportation companies, multinationals all have an interest in what services may or may not be made available to them because of WARC decisions.
Firms as small as a taxi company with 10 radio-equipped cars also could be affected. New services offering more range, or better-quality transmission, may become possible because of changes in spectrum usage.
Companies such as Motorola might be able to offer new, more expensive CB radios to consumers. Bell Telephone and other communications companies such as Western Union, Comsat and others might be able to offer a whole new realm of communications services to customers if the right segements of the radio band are opened up. Comsat, for example, is planning to offer pay television beamed directly to individual homes through minireceivers on the roof, sort of a cable television system without the cables. But the radio "winds" will have to blow in the right direction for Comsat to be assured of having the frequencies it needs to provide such a service on a large-scale basis. WARC observers say, for example, that Satellite Business Systems is critically dependant on new satellite allocations for services it is planning to offer. Things could get tight for SBS, Comsat and others if the WARC in any way limits the number of orbital slots.
Countries such as Japan that export electronic goods to the U.S. could have a significant windfall if the American public suddenly is offered a whole new batch of communication services.
And, of course, there is the consumer, whose life could be affected dramatically. What kind of radio equipment can be used, how international telephone calls will be relayed, how many television stations will be on the dial and even the type of microwave ovens available are all issues that can be affected by decisions made at WARC.
"WARC will affect the whole works and ultimately may have a major impact on the prices which consumers will bear for communication services," said U.S. delegate Nolan Bowie, executive director of the Citizens Communications Center in Washington.
But it is clear that the WARC will be the forum for debate over the very role of communications in society.
Word was received in Washington only days before the delegation left for Geneva that Yugoslavia was planning an entirely new, last-minute proposal to force the convention to come up with a definition of broadcasting.
Yugoslavia is seeking to define broadcasting as a service to address the needs of an audience, rather than the strictly technical definition of bringing information from one place to another. The overtly political Yugoslavian proposal is another attempt to limit the global reach, through communications services, of the developed countries.
There is some support in the developing countries for proposals that would forbid the kinds of information-gathering satellite surveillance that have technologically feasible only recently. The argument is that a country should be able to protect itself from satellites that might be registering such things as population density or underground mineral deposits through sensing devices.
"Some countries could botch things up," warned Kaz Kalba, president of Kalba Bowen Associates, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm that did a massive multiclient study of the WARC. "And one problem is that the ITU has no enforcement powers in case rules aren't followed." But Ron Stowe, a delegate from Satellite Business Systems, said, however, that "the system works not just because we are responsive to the needs of other nations, but because the ITU has to be responsive to our needs as well."
And Wilson Dizard, a 30-year veteran of the State Department who is vice chairman of the U.S. delegation, said it is unlidely that the U.S. or any other power would pull out of the conclave. "Nobody is thinking that way, because it runs against logic," he said. "We might register a few reservations (official protests that could delay implementation of specific plans until future meetings) but we are all in this boat together. Nobody questions the need for a technically viable arrangement."
Although experts point out that there is always the possibility that one country could choose to jam the airwaves as a form of protest, and disrupt worldwide communications, delegation sources say such a move is unlikely. "Jamming is just too expensive and offers too little in return for a developing nation to attempt," said SBS's Stowe. "Smaller countries have more power if they stay within the confines of the convention, since there is a one-country, one-vote policy."
Indeed, there are some 90 developing countries out of the 154 total members giving the Third World a disproportionately powerful voice.
As far as one of the industrialized countries, who could affort to, jamming, Stowe said that, too, is unlikely. "The bigger you are, the more interest you have in keeping the world communications system orderly," he said. And, it is the larger, established companies that are attempting to depoliticize the convention to start with.
In fact, the U.S. has a secret weapon that threatens the sanctity of any final agreement that does come out of the WARC. Because the ITU agreement has treaty status, the U.S. cannot ratify any final agreement officially until it has the stamp of approval from a group that may provide the toughest hurdle of all: the United States Senate.