Telecommunications services

Telecommunications services are a global market worth over US$ 1.5 trillion in revenue. Mobile services account for roughly 40 per cent of this, while mobile subscribers worldwide currently outnumber the use of fixed telephone lines by more than two to one. Over the past decade, the market has witnessed far-reaching changes, with the introduction of competition into a sector that was once principally a monopoly.

Commitments in telecommunications services were first made during the Uruguay Round (1986-94), mostly in value-added services. In post-Uruguay Round negotiations (1994-97), WTO members negotiated on basic telecommunications services. Since then, commitments have been made by new members, upon accession to the WTO, or unilaterally at any time.


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Current commitments and exemptions

A total of 108 WTO members have made commitments to facilitate trade in telecommunications services. This includes the establishment of new telecoms companies, foreign direct investment in existing companies and cross-border transmission of telecoms services. Out of this total, 99 members have committed to extend competition in basic telecommunications (e.g. fixed and mobile telephony, real-time data transmission, and the sale of leased-circuit capacity). In addition, 82 WTO members have committed to the regulatory principles spelled out in the “Reference Paper”, a blueprint for sector reform that largely reflects “best practice” in telecoms regulation.

> List of all current telecommunications commitments and exemptions

For consolidated information on countries’ commitments and exemptions on telecommunications services go to the services database. If you are seeking the commitments of a specific WTO member, go to “Jump to a specific sector for a given Member”, select telecommunications services from the sector dropdown list, select the Member of interest and click “go”. To see a table showing which Members have made commitments in telecommunications services choose “See which Members have made commitments in a specific sector”, select Telecommunications services and click “go”.



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Current negotiations 

Telecommunications, like other services, are included in the services negotiations, which began in January 2000. In the current Doha Round of negotiations, additional market opening as well as the binding of recent reforms (i.e. a commitment not to increase a rate of duty beyond an agreed level) in telecommunications is the objective of many of the negotiating requests made by WTO members to their trading partners. As of July 2008, 39 governments had made offers to improve their existing commitments or to commit for the first time in the telecommunications sector. 

At the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference (December 2005), a new sector-specific negotiating mechanism was mandated by the trade ministers. Negotiating objectives outlined by WTO members in the Chairman's note to the Trade Negotiations Committee include:

  • achieving broad coverage in a technology-neutral manner and significant commitments in all modes of supply
  • working with least-developed countries and developing countries to find ways to encourage new and improved offers and to provide technical assistance to support this process
  • reducing or eliminating exclusive rights, economic needs tests (i.e. a test using economic criteria to decide whether the entry into the market of a new foreign firm is warranted), restrictions on the types of legal entity permitted, and limitations on foreign equity
  • commitment to all provisions of the telecommunications Reference Paper
  • the elimination of exemptions to most-favoured nation (MFN) treatment (i.e. non-discrimination)

Plurilateral negotiations have followed, with progress reported regularly to the Special Session of the Council for Trade in Services.

Throughout the negotiations, individual members or groups of members have submitted proposals or other statements outlining their positions and objectives on various issues arising in the negotiations.


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Applicable trade rules 

The trade rules that apply to telecommunications services include the framework articles of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which contain the principles for trade in all services. In addition, the GATS also contains an Annex on telecommunications. This provides guarantees for reasonable access to and use of public telecommunications, in a given market, by suppliers of all services benefiting from commitments scheduled by the member concerned.
> Annex explanation

Another key element — the Reference Paper — is a set of regulatory principles that is legally binding for those WTO governments which have committed to it by appending the document, in whole or in part, to their schedules of commitments.   

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Recent events 



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Additional information 

Search Documents Online
These links open a new window: allow a moment for the results to appear.

  • Secretariat background notes on telecom services (Document code S/C/W/* and keyword “Telecommunication Services and Background Note”)  > search   > help

You can perform more sophisticated searches from the Documents Online search facility by defining multiple search criteria such as document symbol (i.e. code number), full text search or document date.



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Links to other international organizations or associations that deal with telecommunications and related services:

Links to selected reports or studies of interest to trade in telecommunications and related services: