Hopes are rising that a global agreement on liberalising basic telecomms could be reached in the next four months, following a change of heart by the US satellite industry.
The World Trade Organisation has set a deadline of February 1997 for all parties in the telecomms industry to conclude an agreement in principle. This would encourage countries round the world to make their markets for basic telecomms services more open to foreign competition.
The WTO had previously sought an agreement by October this year, but was blocked largely by last minute objections from a group of US companies planning the new generation of personal communications - global mobile personal comumunications using satellite.
In a meeting last week, this group seemed to have softened its attitude. One trade representative at the talks in Geneva said ?the problems behind the failure of the talks in April have been largely resolved.?
In April, the satellite group demanded widespread access to international markets, but has now settled for more modest concessions. The first satellites for this service, which uses handheld terminals, will be launched by Christmas. Consortia involved in setting up these services, and the main objectors to initial WTO plans, are Motorola-led Iridium, Globalstar, Inmarsat subsidiary ICO and US-based Odyssey.
The debate highlights one of the most difficult issues facing the WTO and the telecomms industry - how to regulate mobile telephone and satellite services.
Another potential obstacle to the WTO programme is the fear in Washington that telecomms monopolies around the world will take advantage of low US rates for international calls without offering reciprocal benefits. The WTO sees the presidential election as a critical milestone for achieving agreement in this area.
Unlike the European Union, which has been setting deregulation deadlines for its own market, the WTO has no power to set or enforce rules. Instead it can only make recommendations and facilitate discussion, providing a framework for countries to make their own policies.
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