Data and the global networked society: Telecom in the 1990s

Digital World Blog

As the industry expanded, so did its impact on an increasingly interconnected world.

And so, too, did the definitive industry conference and exhibition.

In its inaugural 1971 edition, the flagship Telecom event convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) had welcomed some 70,000 visitors and 250 exhibitors.

By the end of the 1990s, ITU Telecom attracted more than 175,000 participants and 1,100 exhibitors and was firmly established as the world’s largest event dedicated to the telecommunications and information technology industries.

The data decade

The nineties heralded the age of data, bringing an enormous increase in the capacity to manage, store, process and transmit voices, videos and images. The evolution of computing, improved data management, and the expansion of transmission and switching facilities over the previous 20 years had radically changed the structure of the worldwide telecommunication network.

Network-wide intelligence sharing simplified network management and boosted performance. Ground-breaking technologies like synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) paved the way for new, previously unimagined services.

But from the outset, the pace of uptake varied widely.

“The speed of introduction of new technologies in the network will vary in different parts of the world according to local needs and priorities,” observed ITU’s then-Secretary-General, Pekka Tarjane, at Telecom 91.

“The final goal of their introduction should, however, be the improvement of quality and the introduction of widespread services whilst responding to the real needs and requirements of users.”

Convergence goes mobile

The convergence of telecoms and computing with broadcasting and entertainment became the hallmark of the decade. Updating networks with sophisticated, intelligent switching equipment and harmonizing global standards enabled new applications, giving rise to the multimedia experience.

Bell Atlantic chief executive Ray Smith, speaking at Telecom 95, highlighted the enormous potential on the horizon for the everyday TV or personal computer user.

“Soon we will have televisions that can listen, PCs that can speak, and telephones you can watch,” he said.

“The myriad of new technologies will make it possible for a user to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, and will conquer the barriers of time, national boundaries, and languages.”

Sweden’s telecommunications equipment maker Ericsson demonstrated the first commercial wireless application protocol (WAP) terminal at Telecom 99 – also billed as the eighth World Telecommunications Forum. This marked a first step towards mobile Internet and third generation (3G) mobile technologies offering banking, shopping, entertainment, and other services on the go. General packet radio services (GPRS) and ITU’s IMT-2000 global standards for 3G, meanwhile, opened the way for seamless global roaming.

Convergence with mobile phone wireless technology was starting to have an impact on people’s daily lives – a trend clearly appreciated by Microsoft’s then-Chairman and CEO, Bill Gates.

As a keynote speaker at Telecom 99, he called for collaboration between the computing and telecommunications sectors and anticipated the digital transformation we see today.

“People will not have to think about moving their information around,” Gates said.

“Any files or favourites or messages that they are interested in should just immediately show up wherever they are, whether it is the television that will be connected to the Internet, their mobile phone, their computer in their car, or their PC in all its various forms. In order to make this happen, we are completely dependent on forming strong partnerships with telecommunication.”

In a forum high point, Microsoft’s Gates debated Oracle’s Larry Ellison on the shape of future networks.

Recognizing the digital divide

True to ITU’s mandate, Telecom events promoted inclusivity, encouraging the industry to address youth, the elderly and persons with disabilities and special needs.

President Nelson Mandela, as guest of honour at Telecom 95, urged ITU to keep driving skills transfer, cooperation, international policy and industry development. Expanding Africa’s communication networks, he added, would help to “eliminate the information gap between rich and poor.”

Telecom 1991, Geneva: Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa stressed the need to work towards eliminating the divide between information-rich and information-poor countries.

Geneva, Telecom 1991: Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa, stressed the need to work towards eliminating the divide between information-rich and information-poor countries. Image credit: ITU

Equitable access to the benefits of technology had emerged as a key theme.

Kofi Annan, addressing Telecom 99 as Secretary-General of the United Nations, spoke out against the growing digital divide.

“The capacity to receive, download and share information through electronic networks, the freedom to communicate freely across national boundaries — these must become realities for all people,” he said.
For people living in developing countries, he added, “the great scientific and technical achievements of our era might as well be taking place on another planet.”
Digital skills training – then as now – was crucial to extend the benefits of the worldwide network to as many people as possible.


In this blog series marking the 50th anniversary of ITU Telecom, we look back at five decades of change for the industry, the specialized international agency, and the flagship conference and exhibition series. The next instalment revisits the 2000s.

This year’s edition, ITU Digital World 2021, takes place online between September and December. Explore the full event calendar and register now.

This blog was originally published on ITU News.

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