One of the key annual events of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has just turned 50. ITU Telecom has evolved over the years to reflect a rapidly evolving industry ecosystem. But international cooperation to connect the world remains at the core of the conference and exhibition series.
The first-ever Telecom, featuring a high-level conference combined with a major international telecommunications exhibition, happened in June 1971.
World TELECOM 71, as it was called, launched a regular series of key global gatherings of the ITU family. Governments, industry, academia and international organizations came together to trade insights, showcase and share technological innovations, exchange knowledge – and work together to ensure everyone, everywhere could benefit from technology’s enormous potential.
The past half century has seen rapid advances in telecommunications, including the emergence of unprecedented technologies, sector-wide privatization, and new facets of regulation. New markets, competitors, and partnerships have made the industry, along with the world of ITU, look very different today than they did in the early 1970s.
The key areas of ITU’s work back then, as the name of the event implies, were telephony and telecommunications. Telecom’s focus has since shifted, in line with the industry, to information and communication technologies (ICTs), reflecting the irreversible convergence of two separate sectors. Digital technologies and services are now at the forefront, with the annual Telecom event provisionally rebranded since last year as ITU Digital World.
But even as ITU’s membership has diversified and the scope of Telecom events has broadened, much has stayed the same.
The people who come together through ITU – in all its initiatives, study groups, focus groups, conferences, and events – represent every part of what is known as the industry ecosystem: government, regulatory bodies, academia, international organizations, private sector companies (from multinational corporates to small and medium enterprises) and media. They are still truly global, drawn from all 193 member states. They still span industry sectors, from satellite to mobile, broadcasting to broadband, fintech to smart cities, artificial intelligence and beyond.
Through the second decade of the 21st century, ITU Telecom events have continued to engage on key industry issues, including connecting the unconnected and narrowing the digital divide. Today, as in 1971, this means sharing knowledge and resources, exhibiting innovative technologies, projects and products, and networking across private and public sectors.
What connecting the unconnected means in practice has arguably changed over the years. It is no longer just about ensuring affordable devices and access, along with infrastructure and coverage worldwide – whether in the form of telephony, satellite services, mobile telephony, or even broadband Internet.
Nowadays, it is increasingly about fostering digital skills and awareness, driving demand through relevant content and services, and providing vital information and updates in local languages.
Bringing these benefits to underserved people and communities depends on cooperation and collaboration, cross-sectoral and cross-border partnerships – to meet the challenges and explore the opportunities of an industry upon which the world now relies more than ever.
Interactive exhibits in 1979
A platform for innovation
Throughout the years, Telecom has provided a platform for innovations on display in its renowned world-class exhibition to the policies, strategies and technologies shaping the industry.
Important topics echo down the decades: the incredible potential of exponential technological growth; bridging the digital divide to leave no one behind; the role of regulators in balancing industry competition and consumer needs; the influence – both positive and negative – of ICTs on our environment and climate; the importance of empowering women and girls, youth, persons with disabilities and the marginalized throughout the world; the critical need for skills, training and expert personnel; the social and cultural impact of technology; the interplay and partnerships between public and private sectors; rights and responsibilities in a global, networked world where no country, industry or organization can act alone.
Annual Telecom events continue to provide a window on the increasingly complex world of ICTs. Another 50 years from now, technology may well have reshaped our societies and economies beyond imagination. As the world and the industry keep changing, however, ITU remains committed to improving lives everywhere through technology.
Explore the history of ITU Telecom on the 50th anniversary page.
Find out more on this year’s ITU Digital World 2021. And follow our blog series looking back at the highlights of ITU Telecom over the decades