THE LAST TIME the international community divided up and wrote new regulations for the world's airwaves was in 1959, and the United States, then as now the largest and most advanced user of the radio frequency spectrum, dominated the proceedings. The expansion of the United States' multibillion-dollar, worldwide communications presence, for purposes of information, commerce and strategy alike, followed accordingly.

But now the pie is being cut again, at the World Administrative Radio Conference that is getting under way in Geneva. The United States and other developed country users are on the defensive. Scores of less-developed countries are there asserting new claims for their own radio frequencies and orbital positions for fixed communications satellites, and for a voice in how these are distributed and run. They regard the radio spectrum as yet another valuable international resource that they have both a right and a need to share. They see the current usage, favoring as it does the industrialized countries, as the unfair and unacceptable result of an accident of technological advantage. Their particular concern is to legitimize a so-called New World Information Order, which they identify with their own new access and control and which Westerners commonly understand as restrictions on the old free flow.

As the country with the most at stake in the management of the radio spectrum, the United States has a special interest in seeing that the door is kept open for its own requirements, which change as technology and the American economy change -- constantly. But as a world citizen and as one participant in a one-man, one-vote conference attended by 140 others, it also has an interest in seeing that agreement is reached. The tension between these two interests is reflected in the character of the American delegation, a multi-agency (domestic and foreign) group with advisers from the private sector, and in the uncertainty of its major objective: to support "changes. . .that will accommodate the needs of other nations, consistent with our own essential requirements, while endeavoring to avoid or limit the impact of politically inspired efforts to impede fair and efficient use of the spectrum."

Sepcialists feel that American preparations for WARC have been diligent and thorough. This befits an exercise in which the stakes include the exchange of information and ideas on a global scale, vital national security interests of the United States and billions of dollars in investments and sales. In any event, a political review of the results of WARC is ensured: any agreement reached there comes to the Senate as a treaty. If only the interested parties are paying attention now, the larger community will be forced to pay attention later.