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Yoshio Utsumi is struggling to change the International Telecommunication Union, the world’s oldest international organization whose origin dates back to 1865.

The ITU’s secretary general said the Geneva-based, engineer-dominated organization should become more policy-savvy at a time when telecommunications are rapidly transforming the world economy and people’s lifestyles.

“The most difficult and biggest task is to reform ITU into a body that can deal with policy matters,” Utsumi, a former senior Posts and Telecommunications Ministry official, said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

Utsumi is one of only two Japanese officials occupying the top position of major international bodies, along with Koichiro Matsuura, secretary general of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Utsumi expressed his intention in June to run for re-election when his four-year term expires in January 2003. The election will be held in the fall of 2002.

“The post is precious for Japan, and (the government) would have had me run even if I didn’t want to,” Utsumi said jokingly.

He said he is eager to continue his job because he feels ITU is undergoing drastic and critical reforms.

The telecommunications business was long monopolized by public corporations. ITU’s main job was to simply set technological standards for telecommunications and allocate radio waves.

But in the 1990s, many countries privatized those telecom giants, triggering sprouts of new telecom carriers and competition across national borders.

According to Utsumi, international coordination on telecom policies are now “confused” because some countries and international bodies, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Trade Organization, are separately launching negotiations.

“It is only ITU that can deal with global telecom issues, but it still hasn’t sufficiently performed that function,” Utsumi said, adding that most ITU staffers are still technical engineers, not policy bureaucrats who are better at ironing out differences of opinion.

Utsumi is trying to achieve two major policy goals that ITU has never attempted: forming policy expert teams at ITU and hosting world telecom summits in 2003 in Switzerland and in 2005 in Tunisia.

“If we successfully finish the summit meetings, ITU will naturally become an international body that can deal with policy matters,” he said.

A major issue on the summit agenda will be the digital divide — the economic gap between haves and have-nots of information and telecommunications technologies.

Citing India’s successful software industry, Utsumi stressed that overcoming the digital divide is critical for developing countries, adding that they have a chance to skip industrial revolution and develop their economies with the software industry.

Back in Tokyo from Geneva for a summer vacation, he has found Japan in a gloomy mood amid the economic slump.

But to his eyes, Japanese firms appear to be missing huge business opportunities lying outside Japan, in such countries as China and Brazil.

“Now in China, 30 million people are newly subscribing to telephone lines every year. That’s a huge opportunity, considering the long period of time Japan has spent to increase phone users to its current 60 million,” Utsumi said.

But Japanese firms, discouraged by the domestic economy, appear reluctant to enter the Chinese telecom market while many European and U.S. companies are rushing in, Utsumi said.

Given Japan’s geographical proximity to China and its advanced technologies and computers capable of kanji, Utsumi asked, “Why can’t they go to China?”

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