Communications technology transforming the world
Rapidly-developing technology whisks information and messages around the world in real time. It has opened windows that those who wield political power are no longer able to close. In the developed industrial countries, everyday shopping is already being done through home terminals connected to information networks.
Telemedicine is a reality, as is distance learning. As Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Pekka Tarjanne of Finland has been ideally located to follow and influence one of the greatest and most confusing changes of our era. "New applications are appearing all the time. In a few years' time no one will be counting the mobile teledensity, but something quite different. Soon, the Internet won't even be mentioned, because many kinds of technologies and services have grown from it. We have seen only a small fraction of the upheaval that is accompanying the development of communications technology," says Tarjanne.
The ITU is an intergovernmental organisation founded in Paris in 1865. It became a UN agency in 1947 and has been headquartered in Geneva since then. An unusual feature for a UN body is that it not only functions as an intergovernmental organisation for the 188 member states, but also has more than 500 affiliated companies or organisations - such as Nokia and Sonera in Finland. With governments, major equipment manufacturers and service providers (Internet, satellite systems and computer software firms) participating in its work, the organisation spans the globe very comprehensively.
Of the ITU's many tasks, Pekka Tarjanne rates three above the others in importance. The first is global standardisation of telecoms networks and services. This involves making thousands of different telecoms services compatible with each other, for example developing links that enable computers to "converse" with each other. That people could phone anywhere in the world used to be a goal. Now they can. A second task is to ensure that radio frequencies are used as effectively as possible by the international community. The ITU assigns frequencies for normal telecoms traffic, air traffic, radio astronomy and even amateur use. Its responsibilities also include allocating geostationary orbital slots for satellites to countries and companies. The third main task is development cooperation, especially with the aim of raising the poorest countries to the level where they can join the information society. The average gap between the rich and the poor countries has narrowed in the past 15 years.
China world's biggest telecoms market
"The development in Latin America has been especially positive," Tarjanne notes with satisfaction. "There has also been good progress in South-East Asia. China is the world's biggest telecoms market at the moment. For some time now, the Chinese have been investing $20 billion a year to develop their telecoms networks. That means more than 20 million new connections a year. China is likely to have more telephones than the United States in the year 2000.
"The biggest problems are now mainly in Africa, especially in the sub-Saharan region. The teledensity in some countries there is lower now than it was 15 years ago. With a real information society being built in some places and others lacking even telephones, the gulf between rich and poor countries is deepening." Yet he is an optimist: "Africa Telecom 98, arranged by the ITU in Johannesburg in May 1998 was the biggest event of its kind ever held in the continent. The principal host was President Nelson Mandela. The event was very encouraging. It has certainly been understood in Africa that economic, cultural or social growth and political stability cannot be achieved without first arranging good communications. Fortunately, telecoms networks are a profitable investment even in the poorest countries, so anyone who puts money into them gets it back. There is no shortage of entrepreneurs, provided governments give them the opportunity."
Crossing every border
There used to be "closed countries", but is isolation possible any more?
"Those countries have realised that it isn't and most have wisely been trying to adjust. North Korea has been regarded as probably the most closed country in the world. I was there on a visit a little before Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, died. We had a long conversation," Tarjanne recalls. "He openly conceded that as times change people should be able to discuss and mediate messages also across borders. I believe that also they will manage to find the right path to change. There can no longer be any return to a completely closed society. But a glance at history and the political situation shows that not everything can happen overnight.
"They say the Berlin Wall would have collapsed even without a flow of information across borders, but perhaps later than it actually did. The matter doubtlessly contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Gulf War was the first crisis mediated to the whole world by the information society ." Tarjanne could add many more examples to that list.
Development - the history now being written - is always more difficult to understand without seeing the relationship between it and the information mediation that new technology makes possible. When the structure of communications that influence everything changes, also the surrounding world is inevitably transformed..
"Of course there will be a continuing need for traditional radio and TV services. But they are one-way channels of communication. In a real information society, communications will be interactive. People will no longer just sit on sofas and stare at the box when they have a combination of telephone, television and computer at their disposal. Then they will have a choice of chatting with friends, studying, keeping up with the news, going shopping - even ordering good French wines . The opportunities available to active people are unlimited.
"The new digital technology that is replacing analogue is an excellent step of progress. It enables much, much more to be squeezed out of one radio frequency band. Now a virtually countless number of TV channels can be effortlessly transmitted. A revolutionary feature is that telephones and other telecoms, traditional radio services and bit-based data transmission all use the same technology. A technical convergence is taking place. After this process has been completed, companies will no longer be divided into those that provide television, radio, telephone and telecoms services, hardware manufacturers and software writers. The borderlines are blurring and a new cluster - which for want of a better name could be called 'the multimedia industry' - is taking shape," is how Tarjanne paints his vision of the future in bold strokes.
An international Finn
Pekka Tarjanne, 61, has a Ph.D. in technology and has been a professor of theoretical physics at the universities of Oulu and Helsinki, a Member of Parliament, Minister of Communications, Chairman of the Liberal Party and Director-General of the Finnish PTT. In other words, he is a rare combination of scientist, politician and senior official. His career could well have been designed as a course of preparation to take the helm at the ITU, a job that ideally suits a Finn in any case. He has been able to calm anxieties to the effect that multinational communications with their accompanying phenomena like American soap operas pose a threat to national cultures and languages, pointing out that tiny Finland has been able to preserve both very well.
His nine-year stint of work in Geneva ran until the end of 1998. ITU rules prevented his being elected to the top job a third time, but he is not yet ready to be put out to grass: "Perhaps there will still be some use for my experience and expertise in this sector."