International Agreement - Ratification of Final Acts of International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference, Antalya 2006: briefing by Communications Department

NCOP Public Enterprises and Communication

08 February 2011
Chairperson: Ms M Themba (ANC, Mpumalanga)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Communications briefed the Committee on the ratification of the Final Acts of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference in 2006. They explained that the ITU was the leading United Nations agency providing a platform for the governance of the information and communication technology sector. South Africa signed the Final Acts of the Plenipotentiary Conference, subject to approval by competent authorities.

The Committee queried what contributory units were, how many South African representatives there were on the executive council of the ITU, what South Africa’s contribution was to the undersea cable that was laid down on the east coast of the country, and how binding the Broadband Digital Migration agreement was. Members also asked if the Department could elaborate on what the ITU’s social projects for under-serviced areas referred to, and who attended the conferences.

The Committee stated that it would be more helpful if the Department could provide Members with a list of social projects that the ITU was involved with. This could be done at the next meeting. The Committee did not want to ratify a document that they did not understand. Members requested that all the questions of clarity be written down by the Department and that more detailed information be sent to the Committee. 

Meeting report

Briefing by the Department of Communications
Mr Gift Buthelezi, Deputy Director-General: International Affairs and Trade in the Department of Communications (DoC), informed Members that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was the leading United Nations agency providing a platform for the governance of the information and communication technology sector. The ITU comprises of 191 members states and more than 700 sector members and associate members. The plenipotentiary conference took place in Antalya, Turkey in November 2006 and South Africa signed the Final Acts of the Plenipotentiary Conference, subject to approval by competent authorities.

Mr Jim Paterson, Director: International Affairs (Multilateral) in the DoC, stated that the plenipotentiary conference is the supreme organ of the ITU and is usually convened every four years. Its main functions were to decide on the four year strategic and financial plans, elect the management of the ITU, and elect the members of the Executive Council and the Radio Regulations Board.

The Final Acts of the Plenipotentiary Conference 2006 contains amendments to the ITU Constitution and Convention as well as Resolutions of Conference. The Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Chief State Law Adviser had indicated that the Final Acts were not in conflict with South African national legislation, nor with international treaty obligations. The Chief State Law Adviser indicated that the Final Acts constituted a binding international treaty and had to be ratified by Parliament.

The ITU consists of the Executive Council, the World Conferences on Telecommunications, and the General Secretariat. There were also three sector of the ITU consisting of Radio Communications, Telecommunication Standardisation, and Telecommunication Development.

South Africa was re-elected as a member of the Executive Council. Currently, the ITU council consists of 46 member states and the seats are divided into different regions. The ITU’s mandate was to ensure international cooperation for improvement and rational use of telecommunications, to foster fruitful cooperation and partnership between entities, to provide technical assistance for developing countries as well as mobilisation of resources, and to develop technical facilities to improve efficiency and availability of telecommunication services. The Executive Council was also mandated to allocate radio-frequency spectrum bands, ensure international standardisation of telecommunications, eliminate harmful interference between radio stations, ensure affordable telecommunications, and have social projects for under-serviced areas.

Key outcomes of the Final Acts included an agreement to review the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) through a world conference on international telecommunications. ITRs dealt with the definition of international telecommunication services, cooperation between countries and priority of telecommunications. South Africa supported the resolution as the issue was important to many developing countries. The Conference adopted a revised policy on Intellectual Property - based networks, the role of member states in the management of internationalised domain names, and the ITU’s role with regard to international public policy issues pertaining to the internet and management of internet resources. The Conference strengthened the role of ITU in building confidence and security in the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Another key outcome was the strengthening of the ITU’s regional presence. The Conference increased the size of contributory units for member states. In addition, member states were required to indicate their respective classes of contribution for their forthcoming subscriptions to the ITU. South Africa increased its number of contributory units from three to four. The size of the contributory unit was increased from 318 000 Swiss Francs to 330 000 Swiss Francs from 2008-2011.

The Chairperson said that the Committee would be asking the Department questions of clarification as this meeting was supposed to an information session so Members could understand the agreement.

Mr H Groenewald (DA, North West) referred to page 13 of the presentation. He asked what “contributory units” were. The DoC had said that South Africa had three units, but was supposed to have four. He asked for clarity on the matter. He also wanted to know how many South African representatives there were on the executive of the ITU. There was a cable that was laid under the sea from Europe to South Africa, along the eastern coast. What was South Africa’s financial contribution to this cable? How far along was the project? What was the role that South Africa played in the whole situation?

Mr Paterson explained what a contributory unit was. He said that in the ITU, countries paid a membership fee according to an agreed unit called a contributory unit. Before each plenipotentiary conference, countries indicated to the ITU’s secretariat whether they wanted to change their contributory unit. A budgetary process would ensue and the budgetary unit of the ITU would come back to the plenipotentiary conference with an agreed upon contributory unit. The bigger countries paid more. South Africa felt that its contributory unit was slightly on the low side and increased its contributory unit from three to four.

Mr Paterson addressed the question on the ITU executive. He said that countries were represented on the executive council. The election was not for a candidate as such; it was for a country. Countries were elected by member states if they believed that they would serve the interests of member states and the ITU well. The election process was quite intensive and usually took place in the first week of the conference. Countries really wanted to get into the ITU. South Africa served on the executive council of the ITU and hoped to put forward a candidate for one of the more senior positions.

Mr Buthelezi replied that South Africa tried to be involved in the undersea cable project. There were five or six different undersea cables that ran past Cape Town and other coastal cities. South Africa participated in the cable project at a dismal fee. It was important for government and other businesses to work together in this infrastructure project. The government had to generate a national integrated infrastructure ICT plan that would look at how far the cable would go, which direction it would take and how it would link with cross-border issues in Mozambique and other places. 

Mr Z Mlenzana (COPE, Eastern Cape) referred to page 10 of the presentation. He asked the DoC to elaborate on their “social projects for under-serviced areas”. He linked this to page 3 of the presentation. He noted that South Africa was chairing the African Support Committee. He understood that the South African Development Community (SADC) adopted the Broadcasting Digital Migration project. How binding was this agreement given the understanding that presentations had been made to the DoC by many different countries?

Mr Paterson replied that the ITU’s mandate spoke of social projects for under-serviced areas. The ITU had projects in the least developed countries. Obviously, they did not have jurisdiction or the mandate to go into any country without having the consent or cooperation of that country. The ITU ran technical projects within these countries. There were no development funds as such, but they tried to apply their expertise within the country. For example, South Africa once spoke of having a regional project in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for the development of Small Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs). The country could have partnered with organisations like the ITU to deliver this service.

Mr Buthelezi added that South Africa was not seen as a developing country, nor was it a developed country. It had characteristics of both. South Africa was seen as a leader in its “region” and was obligated to help other developing countries. The country had the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA), which was supposed to deal with under-serviced areas. So, the country was well established to respond to the information society agenda from the ITU. South Africa was capable of running many different projects and had proper mechanisms in place to respond to problems. This was more than many developing countries had. This was why South Africa offered to increase its contributory unit. They knew that the money would be given to those countries in need. This was one of the ITU’s resolutions, which was to assist countries that had special needs. It allowed countries to “put their money where their mouth was”. Countries were encouraged to have bilaterals with one another. For example, if South Africa had an agreement with Southern Sudan, then the first thing we would do is to send a delegation to analyse what the country was in need of.

The DoC even developed an ICT rural development strategy. There were quite a number of errors that the DoC identified with the strategy, but they were not waiting for the ITU to fix the problems. They would discuss this with the Committee at another meeting.

The Chairperson told the DoC that it would be more helpful if they could provide Members with a list of social projects that the ITU was involved with. This could be done at the next meeting. The Committee did not want to ratify a document that they did not understand. She requested that all the questions of clarity be written down by the DoC and that more detailed information be sent to the Committee.

Mr Buthelezi replied that The DoC would have to come back to the Committee with a list of projects that they were busy with and in which provinces the projects were based.

The Chairperson said that the Committee would appreciate that. The DoC had to understand that Members represented their provinces, and this information was very important. The DoC had to bring the information to the next meeting and come prepared to answer the Committee’s questions.

Mr Buthelezi addressed the question on digital migration. He said that this was an interesting subject. He said that if one did not “school” oneself about what one was signing for, one would miss the point. When South Africa went to the ITU, they knew they had not yet been ratified. There was some serious “gambling” and some serious business. The ratification process was used as a sort of gambling mechanism. Members had to understand the policy of the process. South Africa signed with a particular agenda. 

The Chairperson asked the DoC to clarify who attends the conferences and what mechanism they used to report back. 

Mr Paterson replied that different stakeholders in the sector were invited to the conferences. Stakeholders included services providers, State Owned Entities (SOEs) and different communications forums. Issues would be discussed and national positions would be given. Some sectors were sector members of the ITU and they were entitled to attend the conference as observers. These members could also be included in the national delegation. Normally, the different enterprises were asked to pay their way. South Africa usually had a delegation of approximately twenty people. There were usually report back meetings after members of the delegation attended various meetings.

The Chairperson thanked the DoC for the presentation. She suggested that the DoC bring some Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) on board the ITU. She suggested they hold a workshop to help NGOs understand what the ITU was.

The meeting was adjourned.


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