Inside the ITU


We have all seen the recent imbroglio over the French proposal to share the bottom 2 MHz of the 2m band with aircraft.  The proposal was defeated before it reached the ITU, but there was much talk of World Radio Conference agendas, study cycles, sharing studies, et al.

This issue raises the larger questions of what does the ITU do, how does it work and who makes the decisions that affect millions of radio amateurs, worldwide?


The ITU is an agency of the United Nations, specialising in communications and information technology.  The ITU was founded in 1865 and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

From the ITU website:

Virtually every facet of modern life – in business, culture or entertainment, at work and at home – depends on information and communication technologies.

 Today, there are billions of mobile phone subscribers, close to five billion people with access to television, and tens of millions of new Internet users every year. Hundreds of millions of people around the world use satellite services – whether getting directions from a satellite navigation system, checking the weather forecast or watching television from isolated areas. Millions more use video compression every day in mobile phones, music players and cameras.

 ITU is at the very heart of the ICT sector, brokering agreement on technologies, services, and allocation of global resources like radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbital positions, to create a seamless global communications system that’s robust, reliable, and constantly evolving.

 The global international telecommunications network is the largest and most sophisticated engineering feat ever created.  You use it every time you log on to the web, send an e-mail or SMS, listen to the radio, watch television, order something online, travel by plane or ship – and of course every time you use a mobile phone, smartphone or tablet computer.


The ITU has three “sectors”:

Radiocommunications (ITU-R): global management of the radio frequency spectrum and satellite orbit resources.  Develops international radiocommunications standards.

Standardisation (ITU-T): develops international standards for non-radio information and communications technologies.

Development (ITU-D): works in developing countries to promote equitable and affordable access to telecommunications.

Amateur radio is covered in the ITU-R sector.


The ITU is made up of 193 member states and more than 800 sector/academia members

Member states, (countries, known as Administrations), are the decision makers at ITU.  They operate through a formal process, in a similar manner to the United Nations (UN).

Sector and academia members participate in ITU Study Groups and contribute to the development of new standards, etc.  Sector members are normally commercial companies or representative bodies.  The IARU is a sector member of ITU.

Sector members provide an advisory/lobbyist role.

World Radio Conferences (WRC) and the study cycle

WRC are held approximately every four years.  They are the ITU’s peak forum for deciding on frequency allocations and related issues.

The period between each WRC is known as the “Study Cycle”, where proposed changes are discussed in detail and recommended to the WRC.

These tasks are undertaken by ITU Study Groups.

The ITU-R Study Groups

ITU-R Study Groups cover several specialities:

  • Spectrum management
  • Radiowave propagation
  • Satellite services
  • Terrestrial Services
  • Broadcasting service; and
  • Science services

Amateur radio matters are dealt with in Study Group 5 – Terrestrial services

Working parties and groups

Study Groups are divided into Working Parties.  For Study Group 5, these are:

  • Working Party 5A (WP 5A) – Land mobile service above 30 MHz; wireless access in the fixed service; amateur and amateur-satellite services
  • Working Party 5B (WP 5B) – Maritime mobile service including Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS); aeronautical mobile service and radiodetermination service
  • Working Party 5C (WP 5C) – Fixed wireless systems; HF and other systems below 30 MHz in the fixed and land mobile services
  • Working Party 5D (WP 5D) – IMT (mobile phone) Systems

Working Parties are further divided into Working Groups, which deal with specific issues – e.g. :

5A-1Amateur services
5A-2Systems and standards
5A-3Disaster relief

Study Groups/Working Parties/Working Groups normally meet several times a year at ITU headquarters in Geneva.

There are national Study Groups in most countries.  These parallel the work of their ITU counterpart groups and are used to develop national (country) positions on ITU issues.  The Australian ITU Study Groups are administered by the ACMA.

Who can attend ITU?

ITU generally isn’t open to the public.  You need a pass to enter the ITU complex, and these are only issued to authorised representatives or approved visitors.

To attend and speak at meetings, you normally must be a member of a country delegation or sector group.

Each group of country representatives is known as a delegation.  The delegation normally operates in accordance with a pre-approved country briefing document – this defines an agreed set of positions on the topics to be discussed at the meeting.

You cannot normally deviate from the brief without approval from the delegation head – this is particularly the case for contentious subjects, where only certain delegation members may be authorised to speak and what they say may also be strictly controlled.

To be a member of a country delegation, you must be approved by that country’s regulatory authorities (e.g. ACMA) – you normally need to be a specialist in a particular aspect of ITU work (i.e. maritime, satellite, amateur radio, etc) and have contributed to the work of domestic Study Groups.

Meeting procedures

The meetings are quite formal and structured like a Parliament in some ways.

The meeting chair is always addressed as “Mr or Madam Chair” and there is a generally accepted manner of speaking – i.e. when you speak, you always thank the chair and other delegates who have spoken.

It is rare to hear raised voices.

Each country delegation sits together and has a “country flag” (a plastic sign).  If you wish to speak, you “raise your flag” – i.e. hold your sign up or sit it vertically in its groove in the desk.

Every desk in the meeting room has a gooseneck microphone and earpiece.  The microphone has a locking PTT switch.  The end of the microphone turns red when it is live….

Most meetings are conducted in English, but some are multi-lingual.  There is a real-time translation service provided through earphones if required.

It is all very UN like, and somewhat disconcerting for first time attendees…

Country flag, mics and earpieces (author)

Meeting chairs are normally experienced country representatives.  Chairing can be quite onerous, particularly when you are dealing with competing interests…who often aren’t backward in making their point…albeit very politely.

It is all about the papers

New proposals are put forward to Working Parties and Study Groups through “papers”.  These are documents, distributed electronically, that propose actions to be carried out.

These actions might be a new sharing study for a new service (like the French proposal for 2m), modifications to the table of frequency allocations, modifications to an ITU reference document (known as an ITU-R Recommendation), etc.

Papers are circulated prior to the meeting.  Other countries and sector members may submit a response to a paper either in writing or verbally at the meeting.

Papers are normally “introduced” (i.e. presented) at a meeting.  If the subject is complex, a dedicated group will be set up to deliberate and report back to the parent committee.

Most issues discussed at ITU are quite involved, and often run over many meetings.

Issues are normally resolved by consensus between members.  A country delegate will speak in favour (or against) a paper, and the floor is then open for other country delegates to give their opinion.  Often this will just be a statement of support.

Other delegates may then also make statements of support or opposition, until it becomes obvious that the meeting is either in favour of or against the proposal.

It can be a slow process, but it works.

What does this all mean for AR?

The ITU is expensive to attend – whilst airfares have become cheaper in the last few years, the cost of accommodation/meals in Geneva remains prohibitive.

One needs to exercise pragmatism in attending ITU meetings.  Are there proposals on the agenda that directly impact our interests?  Sometimes it is not necessary to attend every meeting.

Sector members (e.g. the IARU) are integral to the proper functioning of the ITU – they provide the commercial and hobbyist perspective to balance the views of Government regulators.

However, member states drive the processes and make the final decisions.

We saw this in the recent rejection of the French proposal for the bottom of 2m.  The German administration submitted a very strongly worded and well-argued paper to CEPT that pointed out the (obvious) flaws in the proposal.  This was the catalyst.  Other administrations followed suit at the meeting, and the proposal was defeated.

Obviously, there was considerable behind the scenes activity, and IARU lobbied hard, but the decision was ultimately made by member states.

It is thus essential that the views of the entire Australian amateur sector are reflected in the formal Australian briefing document for ITU meetings.  The IARU fulfils an important role as a sector member, but only the Australian delegation (i.e. the ACMA and its delegates) directly represent our views.

The ITU is a complex beast, often shrouded in mystery.  It need not be so…

Get involved with the ITU processes, make inputs to the Australian position, ask questions.  Lobby the ACMA, if needs be.  Make your voice heard.

Don’t leave it to someone else.

More info at:

About the author

Glenn Dunstan VK4DU attended numerous ITU meetings as a professional member of the Australian Delegation, representing maritime interests.  He drove major amendments to three ITU-R Recommendations to introduce new life saving maritime radio technology.

 Glenn chairs the Australian Marine Radio Standards committee and has been a member of various European and US radio standards boards and committees.