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The International Telegraph Union

Early Beginnings

Original Motivation

European nations wanting to use telegraphs for international communications

1849: First international agreement between Austria and Prussia; negotiation of common standards and tariffs.

1851: Similar agreement reached between Belgium and France.

Various countries join the two different unions

1865: International Telegraph Union founded at a conference in Paris

A uniform telegraph standard determined. Morse code to be used for International transmission.

1903: ITU begins to draft regulations for international telephone service (note that phone was invented in 1877).

Radio Regulation

1903: Beginning efforts to regulate maritime radio communications

Berlin: Preliminary Conference Concerning Wireless Telegraphy, nine nations attend including U.S.

1906: Berlin Radiotelegraph Conference--29 member countries form the International Radiotelegraph Union;

Formulated the basic regulatory principles still in common use today:

Partitioned spectrum frequencies below 188 kHz for long distance communications and frequencies between 188 kHz and 500 kHz for military use.

1912: Radiotelegraph Conference in London

New services like time and weather broadcasts assigned below 188 kHz; amateur use above 3 MHz--then considered useless!

Focus on more spectrum efficient methods of transmission--replacement of spurious spark gap transmitters by frequency-stable tube-based systems.

1920: Washington Preliminary World Conference on Electrical Communications

Proposed to merge telegraph and radiotelegraph conventions into a single Universal Electrical Communications Union. Proposed a spectrum allocation process that would require international approval before use. Created the blueprint for the current International Telecommunications Union.

1927: Radiotelegraph Union meeting in Washington

80 countries participate. Broadened responsibility beyond maritime transmitters to all radio transmitters. First comprehensive Table of Allocations. Formation of Radio Technical Consulting Committee (CCIR) to study technical issues.

1932: Joint Telegraph and Radiotelegraph Conference in Madrid

Creation of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), spanning radio, telephone, and telegraph.

1947: ITU Conference, Atlantic City

Becomes a specialized agency of the United Nations. Only sovereign countries become full members, one vote per country independent of size.

Today: 166 member countries, 300 non-government agencies ("recognized private operating agencies," scientific, industrial, and international organizations)

Expansion of Allocation and Use of Spectrum


International Radio Conference

Spectrum Allocated (kHz)

1906 Berlin 500 to 1000
1912 London 150 to 1000
1927 Washington 10 to 23,000
1932 Madrid 10 to 30,000
1938 Cairo 10 to 200,000
1947 Atlantic City 10 to 10,500,000
1959 Geneva 10 to 40,000,000
1963 Geneva (space) 10 to 40,000,000
1967 Geneva (maritime) 10 to 40,000,000
1971 Geneva (space) 10 to 275,000,000

Regulatory History of the Telephone System

Western Union holds virtual monopoly for long distance communications in the US. Refuses to buy Bell's telephony patents because it believes that one of its own employees hold a patent for the telephone. Bell wins patent infringement lawsuit in 1879, giving him complete control of the telephone industry. Western Union forced to sell its telephone network to Bell, as well as its Western Electric manufacturing concern in 1881.

1885: Bell forms AT&T to provide long distance services between local exchanges.

1907: AT&T gradually loses control of the telephone network. By this date, it controls only 51% of the network.

T. Vail, President of AT&T, and banker J. P. Morgan purchase independent telephone companies. Pressured them to knuckle under or have their long distance service cut-off. Companies sue AT&T.

Interstate Commerce Commission assumes regulatory role for interstate telephony.

Vail proposes the concept of regulated monopoly. State lawmakers establish own regulatory control. Prohibit competitive provision of local-exchange services to avoid wasteful duplication and "cream skimming" and to insure universal service. State regulatory commissions control telephone rates.

1934: Establishment of Federal Communication Commission

Controls interstate and international communications. Universal service is identified as the primary goal of telecommunications policy.

By 1956, Bell System has complete control of the US telecommunications infrastructure.

1940s: Bell System seeks to monopolize mobile communications market.

1940: First 2-way mobile radio connected to phone system in NY; rapid growth in the number of mobile users from about 86,000 in 1940 to 695,000 in 1948.

1949: FCC does not allow Bell System to establish a "natural" monopoly. Permits other companies to provide radio-operated services.

1949: First federal anti-trust suit against AT&T. Goal was to separate AT&T from Western Electric.

Resolved in 1956--AT&T focuses on common carrier services and grants licenses to its competitors. Consent decree no longer allows Western Electric to manufacture mobile equipment. It is restricted to selling equipment to the Bell System. This gives a big boost to Motorola in mobile communications. (AT&T also restricted from data processing business).

1966: FCC investigates whether Bell Systems should be allowed to enter data processing market.

1971: Common carriers allowed to enter data processing, but only through arms length subsidiary. At same time FCC allowed common carriers to provide data and specialized communications services.

Example: microwave transmission systems for bypassing AT&T long distance network ok'd in 1959.

1969: MCI (Microwave Communications Inc.) voice transmission over microwave links between St. Louis and Chicago. Many companies get into this business throughout 1970s.

1976: FCC reexamines whether Bell System should be allowed to enter data processing market.

1980: FCC's final decision--beginnings of deregulation. "Enhanced" services (those that add, change, or restructure information) no longer regulated. 1968: non-Western Electric equipment could be attached to the phone network (famous Carterphone decision--2-way radio link to telephone system); by 1980, customer premise equipment market completely deregulated. AT&T, GTE, and others could enter computer and data processing systems and services.

Divestiture of AT&T

1974: Second anti-trust case against AT&T--Separation of AT&T, Western Electric, Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs)


AT&T has been a disaster in the computer business. Because it both provides services and manufactures equipment, it is its own most serious competitor. RBOCs less willing to purchase equipment from their own service rival.

RBOCs anxious to get into information services (e.g., video-on-demand). Fiercely competitive with each other, no longer interested in collaborative research via Bellcore.

US Telecomm Act of 1996

Global Developments

Some Comparative Statistics

Comparison of US and Japanese Communications Markets



United States


US/Japan ratio of numbers per capita

Number, in millions

Cable TV subscribers 1995 61.0 2.2 13
Host computers linked to the Internet 1996 6.1 0.3 11
E-mail boxes 1994 40 3.1 6
Mobile phone subscribers 1995 28.2 5.4* 3
PC shipments 1994 18.4 3.4 3
Yen, in Billions
Database operating revenue 1993 1431.5 210.8 3
Market scale of CD ROM 1993 630.0 83 4

* Note that some of these statistics can change very quickly. Cellular phone use grew to 10 million subscribers in Japan by March 1996 and more than 20 million by October 1996, due to rapidly declining costs for cellular phones and services. The turnaround has been accelerated by the recent deregulation of the Japanese cellular telephone market and the recent introduction of personal communication services (called "Personal Handyphone System" in Japan).

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Randy H. Katz, Last updated: 2 April 1997