International telecommucications, which for almost a century were left to the experts, has attracted the interest of foreign offices around the world, and the debates now even link radio bands with human rights.
"We like to say that the question has just become politicized," one American said recently, "but in fact it's always been politicized."
The problem for planners in the United States and other industrial nations is that their experts can no longer run International Telecommunications Union meetings like a private club. The developing nations may not have international terrestrial broadcasting capabilities, let alone satellites, but they are demanding a share of the radio spectrum.
In September, 1979, the 153-member ITU is to convene a World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC) in Geneva, the first general discussion of all frequency allocations and radio regulations in 20 years.
American government and communications industry officials are already preparing for the conference, and some have been at it more than two years.
The rules established in 1979 are to govern worldwide telecommunications for the remainder of this century. Nations have huge financial stakes in the decisions that will be made.
Vital questions of nations' defense communications, international broadcasting and satellite communications involving huge financial stakes are to be settled.
In 1865, telegrams were stopped at each international border, walked across and then retransmitted on the system of the other country, causing delays and confusion.
From the time Napoleon 111 summoned other nations to Paris to form the ITU and remove national boundary obstacles to telegrams, the powerful, developed nations did pretty much what they liked with telecommunications until the last general WARC in 1959.
Then, third-world nations made a not very determined and unsuccessful attempt to assign each nation some channels within the short-wave band whether they needed them or not.
That meeting was also the beginning of what Federal Communications Commissioner Robert E. Lee calls the disturbing tendency of about 50 African and Asian nations to vote as a bloc on technical issues.
In 1974, at a conference on maritime communications, landlocked nations insisted successfully that they get a share of the frequencies despite their lack of need.
Earlier this year, the United States was overwhelmed when it sought to delay assigning frequencies to nations for direct broadcast satellites. the U.S. delegation argued that technology is developing so rapidly it was a mistake to make difinite allocations on the basis of outdated technical knowledge.
Most nations have no intention of launching a direct broadcast satellite, but that did not lessen the desire of almost all to have their names placed alongside certain frequencies on the ITU master chart.
Colombia and a number of other nations on the equator came up with an argument that they owned the space above their nations and therefore should charge rent to those nations that park geo-stationary communications satellites must orbit in the arc 22,300 miles above the equator.
Although the Colombian proposal has not won majority support, it symbolizes the efforts nations with no need for large telecommunication's resources are making to get a share of the world communication revenue.
Similarly, there has been some talk that developing nations should be given the same short-wave allocations as major broadcasters like the United States and the Soviet Union. Then, they could sell their allocation to a big user.
Perhaps the most important result of the meeting last January and February on direct broadcast satellites was that satellite broadcasts to recipients who did not give their consent were effectively barred.
Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
At the United Nations, the United States has strongly supported the free flow of information, but other nations have argued against the "cultural imperialism" they see in a large power beaming unwanted broadcasts at their people.
Existing short-wave radios are bad enough, in their eyes, andtelevision, programs would be worse.
The debate has gone on for years at the U.N., but the British delegation, recognizing the decisions reached at the ITU direct broadcast satellite conference, pointed out that unwanted broadcasts via satellite are not a practical possibility. "Radical rethinking is now necessary on the question whether further discussion of prior consent is necessary," the British said in a bid to end the long debate.
Unwanted broadcasts are not permitted because of technical decisions the ITU members made without addressing themselves directly to the political questions of prior consent.
The 1979 meeting could undo the decision, but that it not thought likely.
Short wave therefore remains the only means of international broadcasting, and allocations in that band will be another major controversy in 1979. But, before the wrestling between nations begins, rivals within the United States will go through some hard bargaining to arrive at the U.S. position for WARC.
Gordon Huffcutt of the State Department and others believe the internal negotiations are at least as difficult as those at the WARC.
The demand for frequencies continues to increase and the number available stays the same.
"Should we be broadcasting the Voice of America's message better to enslave nations or should a guy in Oklahoma with a citizens band be able to radio his wife and tell her he'll be late for dinner?" one official said. "That's facetiously put, but those are the kinds of choices."
The government has over half the frequencies in the United States, and some private users believe good radio channels are being wasted. "You never know what they're using them all for," J. B. Potts of COMSAT said. "They just say it's for the national security."
The demands for short wave and microwave frequencies will be for several times those now being used in international broadcasting and international satellite communications, and all sides are urging that the head of the U.S. delegation be named soon so that he can become expert in the questions before the conference.
"If you do your selling at the conference itself then you're in trouble," said George Jacobs of the Board for International Broadcasting, which runs Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe.
Jacobs, one of the few experts in the field who attended the last general WARC in 1959, believes "the stakes are higher than they're ever been before" in the shaping of future international communications.