HOOKING UP THE HAVES AND THE HAVE-NOTS SOCIAL, CULTURAL, ECONOMIC CONCERNS TAKE CENTER STAGE

HOOKING UP THE HAVES AND THE HAVE-NOTS SOCIAL, CULTURAL, ECONOMIC CONCERNS TAKE CENTER STAGE

Government and corporate leaders in the telecommunications industry around the globe get together here this week to display their wares and discuss the endless market opportunities the industry offers.

With such high-level attendance from more than 100 nations, Telecom 95 will be the place for information, entertainment and telephone companies to

announce business deals, mergers, joint ventures and strategic partnerships.Of pressing concern, however, is the gap that has developed between the rich and the poor countries and which threatens to widen even further. International regulators are increasingly anxious about the impact of this gap on the global telecommunications environment.

"We must not leave the developing countries behind," said Pekka Tarjanne, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union. ''Closing the development gap is the first item on our agenda."

His organization, which sponsors the Telecom 95 extravaganza, has placed telecom development in the poor regions at the top of its priority list, together with other social issues the information age entails.

With ideology gone, information technology is billed to become the next catalyst for revolutionary change. The sector, which took a century and a half to develop into a $1.4 trillion industry, is set to explode, doubling in size in a matter of years.

Growth will be coming not only from the developed countries and the best economic performers among the emerging markets, such as Southeast Asia or the Pacific Rim, but from Latin America and Africa as well.

Mr. Tarjanne, speaking in an interview from his office, said this year will be unlike prior years, when the quadrennial telecom conference focused on purely technical issues. This year the event will center on social, regulatory and cultural aspects of the information explosion, he said.

Under the daunting title, "convergence dynamics, social imperatives," speakers from the very top of the official and corporate world will discuss such topics as "regulating for growth," "managing for change" or ''resourcing for growth."

"This year, the ITU is more interested in the information society from the users' point of view," Mr. Tarjanne said.

For example, he said, telecom technology has overlooked the 10 percent of the world's population who are handicapped. "For them, telecom can do more than for the rest of us."

These views represent the new ITU, one that has broadened the scope of activities from its traditional role of a regulator of global frequency spectrum and the world's standardization body for the industry.

Under Mr. Tarjanne's leadership, the ITU has undergone a major restructuring, realigning its activities into three main areas - radio communication, standardization and development.

To bring private-sector capital into the least-developed countries, ITU has conceived WorldTel, a venture aimed at raising the capital needed to carry out telecom development projects.

A private enterprise operating under the auspices of ITU, WorldTel would do business in those least-developed countries that have abolished state telecom monopolies and created a market environment in the telecom industry. It will start with countries where, on average, 100 or more people share one telephone.

According to ITU data, four-fifths of the world's population has virtually no access to telephones. The density varies from 0.6 telephones per 100 people in the poorest regions to 60 lines per 100 in the richest.

A private study estimated it would take an annual investment of some $30 billion to bridge the investment gap between the poor and rich countries.

"I am extremely happy to say the reaction of the financial world has been surprisingly positive," Mr. Tarjanne said, speaking of WorldTel. "We have encouraging reaction from all the continents," he added, but declined to specify how much private capital has been committed to WorldTel.

He said, however, the first WorldTel project will likely be announced early next year, probably somewhere in southern or eastern Africa.

To complete ITU's internal reorganization, Mr. Tarjanne is pushing for a greater institutional voice of the private sector in its decision-making. He said it may well be the more than 400 companies now having an observer status in ITU will soon be sitting next to their governments with a full voting right on international telecom issues.

Mr. Tarjanne rejects any notion his organization is too cumbersome to keep up with the pace of technological change. Nor does he believe that the anticipated World Trade Organization rules on the world trade in telecommunications will make ITU obsolete.