A simple man's view of the UN's International Telecommunications Union meeting in Dubai

Open competition and access are truly the best approach to growing and evolving industries. Taking a careful look at what is happening at the ITU Dubai conference shows how important it is for us to educate policy makers.

Picture: Richard Feller

A simple man's view of the UN's International Telecommunications Union meeting in Dubai

I have been reading article after article and blog post after blog post trying to decipher any concrete information about the current meeting of the ITU that is being held by the UN in Dubai these next two weeks, and while I will continue to educate myself on this topic, I know I am not and will not be an expert in International Telecommunications Treaties when all is said and done.  In truth. I do not want to be!  I really just want to understand the "why" of these meetings and I think, when I add up much of the data that I am processing, I am getting a clearer picture.

Now, the ITU says one of the main reasons that they are convening is to ensure the provisioning of Internet access to all people all over the world.  Dr Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the UN's International Telecommunications Union said, "The brutal truth is that the internet remains largely [the] rich world's privilege...ITU wants to change that."  While this may be true and may be a noble cause, I often look at these opportunities with the same cynicism I have when most governing bodies come out with grand new ideas for how to make the world a better place.  What I always come back to is money!  Who is it that can regulate, make decisions about and mostly who can TAX  for these goods or services and who will benefit most from those decisions?

Since Hedgehog was started, and moreover, since the owners of Hedgehog started in the Internet industry back in the mid 90's, we have held the belief that the Internet will be the vessel for change in everything we do as individuals and as businesses. My good friend and Chairman of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, Christian Dawson put is so eloquently when he said, " Our companies are the ones who help new businesses get off the ground. Our businesses directly impact and empower both world and local economies.  Our companies are the ones who aid individuals in getting their information out and their voices heard.  I am confident that if developing nations better understood that businesses like ours were the foundations of the open Internet they would better understand how maintaining liberalized markets is the best way to continue the Internet’s growth and outreach.  It is a little known fact, but the Internet is mostly small and local.  Our companies are proof of that."

 As a member of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, Hedgehog strongly believes in this.  We believe strongly enough in this vision that I have taken an active role with the I2C and will continue to seek to influence decision makers to weigh decisions on whether they are good or bad for the Internet economy and its foundational industries. In short, we seek to foster growth within the Internet infrastructure industry by driving others to harness the Internet's full potential.

So that is the background information.  Now to the reason I am writing this post.  I do not feel that this meeting of the ITU is being held with these same beliefs in mind.  I do not believe that the decisions being made are being made with the same mindset as I mentioned earlier.  I believe these meetings are a bit of knee-jerk reaction to a growing industry that is not fully understood by our law-makers and governing bodies.

I will use Uber (www.uber.com) as an example.  This new company provides licensed, professional drivers the ability to receive and fulfill on-demand car service reservations as your private driver.  TechCrunch said, "This service eliminates everything bad about a taxi experience." It is a competitor to the common taxi cab.  Well... This service was not well received here in Washington DC. There have been months of debate over whether the Internet-based service should be regulated by the D.C. Taxicab Commission. Uber feels that they have a right to operate without falling within the myriad of taxicab regulations, particularly those that involve the regulating of fees.  The owner of Uber says, "That's the free marketplace in operation... Uber is not something you have to do.  You can take a taxi if you'd like to do that, but there are also times you want to take Uber, and if you are willing to pay a higher amount during peak hours, you should be allowed to do that." For all you Virginia residents, doesn't this sound a lot like the "Hot Lanes" that just opened up?  But I digress...

So now, there has been a victory for Uber.  The District of Columbia has ruled to define a new class of for-hire vehicles that use digital dispatch and charge by time and distance. This is neither a taxi or a traditional sedan.  But larger than that, this is a victory for small business and entrepreneurship.  Rather than lump this new vision of travel into an age old system that has been around since 1640.  That is a bit of an exaggeration for effect as the real industry was probably established closer to the 1940's, but still it is rather neat that for-hire transportation has been around that long.  But back to my point.  The people we entrust to make decisions came to realize that this new service may not fit into any existing mold that we have and it may be time for a new mold.  Moreover, they are working with the developer of this new technology to strike just the right definition of what this new category of service is.

Now, if only others will follow suit.  In the end, the ITU wants to take the Internet, a fairly new and rapidly growing technology and they want to lump it in the with an age-old treaty last updated in 1988 that governs telecommunications.  They must be made to understand why this is bad.  Just yesterday, The US and some other nations put forward a proposal to the ITU that would limit the International Telecommunication Union's rules to only telecom operators and not Internet-based companies such as Google Inc and Facebook Inc.  This was a great first step but was met with opposition and ultimately failed to win support.  While no one is arguing that a treaty last updated in 1988 needs no revisions, (That is not entirely true.  There are a number of people on the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." bandwagon, but that is another post.)  we really need to keep trying and keep working to make the right kind of change - one that doesn't pack new innovation into old frameworks that would kill them.  The ITU needs to come to a realization that it needs to be hands-off if it wants to let what's working continue to work, the way DC ultimately did with Uber.

There is an old Italian proverb that says, "After the game, the King and pawn go into the same box."  If we are truly trying to make good decisions, maybe the king and the pawn need to be on the same table to make this happen.  I applaud Uber for working with local and state governments just as much as I applaud the DC government for the solutions that they are working towards.  Maybe there is a blueprint here that can be taken to other governing bodies.


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