Topics handled by WTO committees and agreements
Issues covered by the WTO’s committees and agreements

History of the telecommunication negotiations

At the close of the Uruguay Round in April 1994, Ministers decided to extend negotiations on trade in basic telecommunications beyond the Uruguay Round.

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Post-Uruguay round negotiations: 1994 to 1996, a second attempt back to top

Ministers hoped that through the extension more liberalization could be captured as the negotiations could take into account some of the reforms under way in telecommunications regulatory regimes and rapid advances in technology. The negotiations began in May 1994, initially with the participation of 33 WTO Member governments, under the auspices of a group called the Negotiating Group on Basic Telecommunications (NGBT). The Ministerial Decision directed the negotiations to conclude by 30 April 1996. Participation in the NGBT was voluntary and, by the end of April, 53 WTO Member governments had decided to participate fully in the Group. Another 24 governments (including some in the process of accession to the WTO) requested to participate with observer status.

By April, the talks had resulted in offers from 48 governments (contained in 34 offers), but some saw the package as not yet sufficient to successfully complete the talks.

At the meeting in April 1996, WTO Director-General Ruggiero said he wished to preserve the results achieved so far in the negotiations. He suggested attaching the results to a Protocol and the establishment of a one-month period early in 1997 during which participants could re-examine their positions on market access and m.f.n. treatment and modify their attachments to the Protocol. Participants accepted the Director-General's proposal in a Decision adopted 30 April by the Council for Trade in Services. The Decision affirmed the opportunity to negotiate further to try to secure improvements and established 15 February 1997 as the closing date. After April, a new body — the Group on Basic Telecommunications (GBT) — was responsible for implementing the further extension of negotiations. This Group agreed to modify the rules on participation in meetings so that all WTO Members had a full voice in its activities and only those governments under accession to the WTO participated, upon request, as observers.

Post-Uruguay round negotiations: 1996 to 1997, the third attempt is a success back to top

The talks resumed in July 1996 and then in the autumn of 1996 participants met monthly and held numerous bilateral negotiations on their market access offers. They also maintained informal contacts at the December 1996 WTO Ministerial Meeting in Singapore and returned to Geneva in January 1997 to prepare to meet the February deadline. Following the successful outcome, participants devoted the remainder of the year to conducting domestic procedures, if necessary, for accepting the Protocol and to preparing for implementation of the commitments made.

The Fourth Protocol back to top

The Fourth Protocol, to which the schedules and MFN exemptions lists tabled in February 1997 were annexed, was initially open for acceptance until 30 November 1997, a deadline which was later extended to 31 July 1998 to allow some remaining participants to complete ratification.

The Protocol and its annexed documents entered into force on 5 February 1998. On that date, the schedules on basic telecommunication services of the signatories became an integral part of the GATS schedules of services commitments already in force since the Uruguay Round concluded in 1994.

In a number of schedules, a Member's commitments for particular services are to be “phased in”. For these, while the schedule formally entered into force on the date of the Protocol as a whole, the actual implementation date for such commitments will be on the date specified in the schedule.


The reference paper back to top

Concerns related to establishing a regulatory environment conducive to market entry were discussed at length during the negotiations. Many participants suggested that regulatory disciplines might be inscribed as additional commitments in schedules as a way of safeguarding the value of market-access commitments undertaken. Participants succeeded in elaborating a set of principles covering matters such as competition safeguards, interconnection guarantees, transparent licensing processes, and the independence of regulators in a commonly negotiated text called the Reference Paper. They also agreed that each would use the text as a tool in deciding what regulatory disciplines to undertake as additional commitments. By the February 1997 deadline, 63 of the 69 governments submitting schedules included commitments on regulatory disciplines, with 57 of these committing to the Reference Paper in whole or with a few modifications. This compares favourable with the April1996 results, when 44 out of the 48 governments submitting offers included commitments on regulatory disciplines and only 31 of these inscribed the Reference Paper.