No matter what language the delegates spoke, the message transmitted by the 1979 World Administrative Radio Conference here was clear: Like the oceans and the skies, airwaves are an international resource, and they will be shared.
It isn't that the United States and the other industrialized nations had monopolized them to anyone's detriment, exactly. But for the first time in history, more countries want to use more of the radio spectrum than is presently available.
One hundred and fifty nations attended the WARC, which ended its 11-week run on Thursday. That is nearly twice the number at the last meeting, in 1959. And this year, for the first time, developing nations held a voting majority at the highly technical convention, which meets to coordinate and regulate international telcommunications.
Previous WARCs have been nothing more than friendly meetings, dominated by the few technologically advanced nations. Basically, they decided where on the radio spectrum to locate a particular communications service. In other words, they would agree to put all shortwave broadcasting in one range of frequenceis (also known as a band) so it could be received on a single radio easily. And then they would designate the specific frequency each country could use to avoid interference between transmissions.
If transmission areas overlapped, for example, the conference's governing body, the International Telecommunications Union, simply would make sure the nations involved were assigned to broadcast on different frequencies in a given band.
The ITU, which is affiliated with the United Nations, maintains a huge table of all allocations. So when a country applies for a frequency on a given band, the ITU makes sure no other country with the potential to interfere already is using that frequency.
To be sure, the radio specturm theoretically is unlimited, but under present technology only a limited use of that spectrum is possible. More powerful and more refined transmitters are making possible use of uncharted parts of the spectrum (bands) that now are shunned because they are too prone to interference from such things as rain or sun spots.
But technology has not moved fast enough to reconcile emerging nations' growing telecommunications needs with the just-as-rapidly-growing demand for better, faster and more efficient communications services in the private sector of the developed world.
For developing countries, the ability to set up a nationwide telephone system that can use a satellite instead of millions of miles of costly cable is a godsend. Even the most remote areas can be reached instantly and cheaply.
In addition, more and more countries have found the need to expand international and domestic broadcasting services, developing their own national television networks and overseas radio broadcasting systems.
Progress has not stood still in the developed world, either. One has only to ride in a truck or many cars to see the proliferation of two-way radio services in the citizens' band to understand the insatiable demand of the public to communicate with itself.
And it is not just people. Computers are linked by satellite now, with questions being asked on one continent answered on another in less than a second. Multinational companies must have such services to compete in a world where even billions of dollars are traded over the phone virtually every minute of the day.
Probably the most intense, yet least understood uses of advanced telecommunications are in the military and science areas.
Complex military radar systems are the last line of defense throughout the world. Knowing that if one country launches an attack on another, the latter can learn of that attack in time to respond before it can be destoryed may have deterred more than one opening shot. And this nation's space program and the military have given us much of the technology for such widespread commercial ventures as weather and communications satellites.
So it was with extreme concern over the need to balance these conflicting interests at the 1979 WARC that the U.S. delegation began preparing for the conference five years ago.
The implications were overwhelming. For the first time, the airwaves had become a limited resource, and a way had to be found to balance various interests as each argued for its inherent right to have a place in a spectrum that, for now, can't fit them all.
The normally apolitical ITU was faced with the possibility of becoming a referee in the kind of political war of words between the "have" and the "have-not" nations of the world that has dominated and nearly destroyed so many other international meetings, including the Law of the Sea conference.
In fact, as the radio conference grew closer, the rhetoric became more heated. At several preliminary regional conferences, Third World countries began talking about a "New World Information Order," and the need to reserve spots on the spectrum for use of developing countries if and when those countries acquire the technology and capital to use those bands.
The United States grew increasingly weary of such proposals. Why should critically needed frequencies go unused? it asked. Such allocation planning represents inefficient use of the airwaves; let those who can and need to use the airwaves use them, U.S. delegates argued. And when a developing country is ready, room will be found to suit its needs.
Easier said than done, was the counter argument, stemming at least in part from the Third World's general mistrust of the United States. What guarantees would we have than when we were ready you would move over? the developing countries asked. No one was volunteering, for example, to take down a satellite.
And only weeks before the conference began, the nonaligned nations met in Cuba and passed a resolution calling for election of a Third World representative to the key post of WARC chairman, upsetting the plans of others.
As they always have in the past, the industrialized nations already had decided privately among themselves to nominate and elect a New Zealander as chairman in what is traditionally the first act of the convention. But not this time. The convention opening was delayed a full week as a dogfight developed over who should be chairman. Ultimately, in what was to set the tone of the conference, a compromise was reached. The New Zealander was rejected, as was an Indian touted by the Third World. Instead, a noncontroversial Argentinian was named, and each of the various interests chose a vice chairman.
But the key to the success of WARC 1979 probably had to do with the fact that the 2,000 delegates were engineers, not politicians. Instead of the expected long-winded debates on broad issues such as the need for a "New World Information Order," convention dealt one at a time with each of literally thousands of minute technical issues.
And although there were some lapses into political rhetoric, most of the 11 weeks was spent in highly specialized subcommittee meetings designed to examine complex technical problems.
To be sure, the industrialized nations embraced a new phrase, learned from their emerging counterparts: "equal access." But while promising to give developing nations that "equal access" to all radio bands when such access is needed, the United States and its fellow "haves" at the same time convinced those developing nations that maximum use of available frequencies is the most efficient use.
Largely through the tireless efforts of several U.S. delegates -- many from the business community -- the United States was able to sit down and work with emerging countries' representatives and convince them that there will be room for everyone at the inn.
By explaining new technologies that will allow significantly increased sharing of existing bands, and by offering to aid Third World countries in their efforts to afford and use such technology, the United States was able to defer many "distasteful" allocation proposals that might have prevented several U.S. businesses from launching satellites that will use frequencies presently unused but coveted by others.
"When the developing world has advanced to the point where it can and will afford to use those bands, we will be able to accommodate them," said one U.S. delegate.
Of course, there were setbacks. In certain areas, where future technological breakthroughs were not so evident, the United States had to drop plans to expand existing services or add new one by getting new allocations of its own.
U.S. military interests were not the most popular at the WARC. There was considerable anguish over the inability of the United States to protect certain bands for exclusive use of military radar services, for example.
And the final document of the WARC -- about 2,000 pages of allocations -- is cluttered with hundreds of "footnotes" in which courtries say that they will act outside of the bounds of one allocation or another in some way. Although most of the footnotes won't affect worldwide service seriously, they represent a clear erosion of the value of having the table of all allocations in the first place.
Footnotes always have been a part of the WARC, usually to reflect special circumstances. But at the outset of this conference the head of the ITU called in his opening speech for a reduction in the number of footnotes. He got just the opposite.
But the political battle did not occur, and was left for a different time -- about a dozen specialized, smaller-scale meetings set for the 1980s -- and probably a different place -- like the U.N.
Perhaps the most fitting testament to WARC's ability to avoid politics came during the closing weeks of the conference. On the day Iranian students seized a 50th hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and only a short time after the storming of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, the delegations of those two countries rose on the floor of the WARC to support U.S. proposals for increasing international frequency allocations for shortwave radio use. Those proposals, incidently, were opposed by most of the developing world and ultimately were defeated.