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“Ambassador Grace Koh on WRC-19 and Spectrum for 5G” (Two Think Minimum)

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Scott Wallsten: Welcome back to TPI’s podcast, Two Think Minimum. It’s Tuesday, January 26th, 2020. I’m Scott Wallsten, President and Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. I’m joined by my co-host, TPI Senior Fellow Sarah Oh. 

Today we’re excited to talk with Ambassador Grace Koh. Ambassador Koh is U.S. Representative and Head of Delegation to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) World Radio Communication (WRC) Conference 2019. She’s also Special Advisor for International Communications and Information Policy in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. If you think that’s not enough, before joining the State Department in 2019, she was a partner in DLA Piper’s telecommunications groups, served as Special Assistant to the President for Technology, Telecom and Cybersecurity Policy at the National Economic Council, Deputy Chief Counsel to the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology in the U.S. House of Representatives, policy counsel for Cox enterprises, and even more, she has a BA from Yale University and a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Thanks for being with us.

Ambassador Koh: Thanks for having me, Scott.   

Scott Wallsten: I guess the first question is, how come you can’t hold down a job?

Ambassador Koh: My husband basically has all my business cards. He’s basically had the same job for the past 15 years. I’ve had, I don’t know how many, but he keeps collecting my business cards because he thinks it’s fun to just like wave the stack of them at me.  

Scott Wallsten: I would like to come back to it at the end because your career is fascinating. Before we get there, the main thing that you had been working on the last year was the World Radio Conference (WRC-19). Tell us a little bit about what that is and what you had to do because it sounds like an incredibly complicated and difficult process and event.

Ambassador Koh: And arcane to boot. It’s one of those things that no one knows about, but it’s actually really incredibly important. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN). It deals with the telecommunications treaties essentially, or telecommunications relationships between nations. The reason why that’s important is because we do need to be able to globalize or harmonize certain things in order for nations to be able to talk to each other. 

Spectrum and satellite orbital slots in particular are the ITU’s bailiwick. Spectrum obviously does not respect any borders, right? We do have to figure out how to harmonize our spectrum so that we’re not interfering with each other and we’re all getting the best and highest use of the resource. It’s a similar situation with satellite orbital slots. They go all over the globe and we have to basically be able to coordinate those. 

The ITU governs two treaties. The primary treaty that we’re talking about here are the Radio Regulations, which are the rules that govern the use of spectrum by everyone on earth. The World Radio Communication (WRC) conference is the conference by which those regulations are updated. Every four years, the world gets together and updates that treaty and every country that belongs to the ITU, about 193 countries, will sign that treaty and abide by those regulations.

Scott Wallsten: How much work is there leading up to it and how do you decide what the priorities are that the United States wants to achieve? Then how do you prepare to work with other countries to achieve them because presumably each of them has their own priorities?

Ambassador Koh: Such a good question and such a difficult process. The World Radio Communication (WRC) conference, as I said, happens every four years. The agenda for each conference is set by the previous conference. In WRC-15 — they call them “worcs” – the WRC-15 set the agenda for WRC-19. Each country lobbies to basically figure out how to get to their priorities into the agenda for the next conference. WRC-15 set the agenda for WRC-19 and that kicked off a four-year study cycle of engineering and regulatory analysis to figure out how we can get those questions answered so that we can figure out how to update the radio regulations.

Right after WRC-15 there was a conference preparatory meeting to decide the questions and send all the agenda topics to study groups at the ITU. The ITU study groups then went off and did their analyses and did their engineering studies. Now each member country sends a delegation to each of those study groups to produce contributions to produce the analyses. The United States obviously participates very heavily in those. 

For the past four years, we have been prepping for this WRC-19.  That means that on the government side, NASA, NOAA, FAA and everyone else, DOE, NTIA have all been working to figure out how to answer the questions that have been posed for WRC-19. On the commercial side, the FCC gathers commercial inputs and puts together sort of inputs for that. At the ITU study process, at the study group delegation usually consists of both private sector and governmental sector and we produce U.S. contributions to put into the study groups. The study groups then create the engineering analyses that formed the basis for ultimately the proposals that will go into the WRC. It’s very long, arcane process. It’s a lot to learn in a few months, but that’s how that works. 

Scott Wallsten: Tell us what were the objectives for 2019. Which of them were accomplished? And then since you said you one of the outcomes of the conference is to set the agenda for next time, what’s the agenda for 2023?   

Ambassador Koh: I’ve talked about a little bit about the study group process. The actual process includes a sort of a second side procedure where you have the FCC and the NTIA along with the Department of State sort of figuring out what we’re actually going to do now that we have these studies, right? We get this intergovernmental group together and we try to agree on what our priorities are and what we believe the U.S. should stand behind as our priorities.

In this cycle, I think what was on everybody’s mind was millimeter wave for 5G. We want to allocate millimeter wave spectrum for 5G and there were a number of bands that were teed up above the 24 gigahertz band for 5G. The questions there really have to do a very much with who are the incumbents in those bands? Can those bands be shared in some way to be able to allow for 5G? What impacts do they have? What conditions do we need to set on the use of those spectrum bands for 5G in order to protect the incumbent services? 

Scott Wallsten: Those were all questions that you sort of wanted to answer leading up to it. It started in 2015. What did people think in 2015 we’re going to be some of the answers to those questions and did they turn out to be right? 

Ambassador Koh: That’s exactly why they do these four-year studies. People did not know in a lot of ways what those answers were going to be. Some people – I mean obviously everyone had their preconceived notions, right? Like “Oh, you’re never going to be able to share with this particular service,” or “you’re never going to be able to share with that particular service.” But you have to go through the engineering studies.  The idea is really that the ITU has always been a technical agency, right? Where you actually have engineering studies done. The idea is to go through and do the actual work to actually figure out what can actually be shared, right? Because we all know this is a very scarce resource and we’ve got to be able to use it for a variety of purposes and those purposes keep proliferating as things go on. You do a number of sharing studies. 

One of the biggest questions really though in 2015 is essentially what are going to be the characteristics of 5G in the millimeter wave. We really didn’t have a very good idea. 

Scott Wallsten: We were still finishing LTE standards. 

Ambassador Koh: Yes, exactly. The standards for 5G were being developed obviously in 3GPP, but then they get ratified at or essentially adopted through the ITU. The ITU is the standards body for developing the requisite parameters for 5G in 2015. I’d say that they were relatively unfinished, but the point of the study cycle is to go through that technical process and essentially provide those characteristics to the relevant study groups that are doing the incumbent sharing analysis and figure out how to move forward from there.

What we did end up doing is essentially getting those parameters and one would argue that maybe it was very difficult for countries to agree on what those characteristics ultimately would look like for 5G. Even now we’re not really sure what those characteristics will be for 5G in the millimeter wave area. I think there was a lot more speculation within the technical studies. There wasn’t as much certainty actually I think in what was being studied. 

Sarah Oh: Related to that topic, how much do you interact with the IEEE with standard setting? IEEE is working it out in a different body and then WRC in ITU is a separate body. How much overlap is there? Industry is the same in both bodies, but in governance, how do you interact with IEEE? 

Ambassador Koh: It’s two separate tracks really. Ultimately, but like you said, I think there are a lot of participants who participate in both processes and so there is some feedback back and forth. But ultimately this is an ITU process. What you’ll see is that the study groups there, so in particular Study Group Five in this instance, decide that this is what the parameters are, the characteristics of the 5G service will be, that is what is used in the studies that are done to determine whether or not 5G can share with a fixed satellite service. 

That’s how that ends up working. It is a very arduous process. There’s a lot of debate that goes on internally within the countries as they do their studies and try to determine whether or not they have decided on the right parameters and that they’ve gone through and done the studies correctly. There’s quite a bit of debate within the agency and obviously also with the private sector and it’s moved forward into the study group process. And there’s additional debate amongst study group members which come from different countries.

Scott Wallsten: Before we talk about what the agenda for 2023 is going to be, which I guess, you know, or at least it’s been set up. Tell us a little more about what actually happened. When I think of these conferences, I think of a bunch of people sitting in a big room around, maybe it’s a circle, maybe it’s, you know, theater style seating and listening to lots of boring speeches. I mean I just, I can’t stand that stuff. There are plenty of people especially in Washington who think that having a meeting is work. It is work in the sense that it’s hard to stay awake and not be annoyed, but this happens with all these people, many of whom do want to just give big speeches and yet you actually do come away with something. How does that happen?

Ambassador Koh: I don’t think I would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself. It’s actually worse than what you’re imagining, Scott. First of all, 3,400 delegates came to the WRC this year and it’s more than any of us ever attended before. I think the millimeter wave issue really sort of caught fire and so you get a lot of people coming in. Primarily the WRC had been sort of a satellite operators game because that is where most of the spectrum is allocated for satellite usage. But now with the identification for 5G services, I think you’re going to see more terrestrial players at the table on this front. 

What you have is 3,400 people in the plenary session, but most of this work gets done outside in drafting groups or which essentially consists of, you know, large committees then broken down into smaller committees to work on one aspect or another with a rapporteur or a chairman sort of trying to understand what the will of the group is and to put it into a document and then those debates about whether or not the comma goes before this particular word or after a particular word actually occur on that level and they do occur.

Scott Wallsten: Is this like group projects in primary school, when only one person does all the work? 

Ambassador Koh: A little bit. I will say that the chairman and rapporteur really did the yeoman’s work. They pulled together the variety of suggestions and sort of resolved all the disagreements that happened at the drafting level and then pushed them up to the next level of adoption and move it forward. In a nuts and bolts kind of way, that’s how that operates. And the U.S. obviously it does offer quite a few folks do actually help with the drafting. We have a large delegation, we have a lot of expertise, so we do try to offer people.

Scott Wallsten: It sounds like you were actually kind of impressed by the process. Setting aside whether the substance is what you wanted to happen, it actually happened. 

Ambassador Koh: It’s amazing that it actually happened. Just knowing that there were so many different positions going in and then finding that people do actually want to resolve this and actually get to an answer without actually getting to a vote, which amazes me. 

Ambassador Koh: This is an important fact about the ITU and about the World Radio Communication (WRC) conferences is that you do not vote. This is all done by consensus. Everyone agrees.

Scott Wallsten: 3,400 person consensus?

Ambassador Koh: 3,400 person consensus, 193 countries agree now. Okay, so consensus means consensus, right? It’s one of those sort of brilliant tautologies that you just sort of don’t really want to unpack too much, but I had one person explain it to me by saying, you know when some island nation doesn’t agree, you still have consensus. When the United States does not agree, you do not have consensus. So that’s one way of looking at it. Sometimes it’s when the chairman says there’s consensus and certainly the chair of the conference, Dr. Amr Badawi was very good at sort of making sure that he drove us to a real consensus that he could call consensus. But the idea here is that everyone has agreed to these particular requirements, these particular regulations, and that is absolutely a huge incentive for all countries to ratify and abide by them. 

Sarah Oh: I heard you give a keynote speech in September at the TPRC conference before the WRC-19 and audience members were bringing up their memories from prior meetings, saying that there were midnight disagreements and they weren’t sure if the treaty would get signed because it gets up to the line. This year, were there major disagreements? Like what kind of conflict is there in getting to consensus? 

Ambassador Koh: There’s tons of conflict. It’s exciting as they have described. There are a lot of late nights. In fact, I don’t know if this is always true, but you know people were talking about how this is a very different WRC from other WRCs. I suspect that none of the WRCs are really ever typical, but in this one there were a lot of issues that were left to the last minute. Very few issues got wrapped up early and so there was quite a bit of concern that we were not going to be able to get to get all of our work done in time. 

Certainly the issue of the millimeter wave identification issue did not get done until the last two or three days. That was pretty hair-raising and what it ended up being, and this is how a good chair can actually effectuate this kind of consensus and compromise is by sort of pulling everyone together, getting the final decision makers in the room and in a well small dark smoke filled room, which will, it’s not smoke-filled anymore because it’s, you know, 2020, but in a small dark room and forcing everyone to talk to each other about what’s really important and what they really need.

That is exactly how some of those decisions get made. Then it’s a scramble to get all of the, you know, I’s dotted and T’s crossed by the time so we can get all the documents across the finish line. But that happens quite a bit. In fact, a lot of the work does happen within the drafting groups themselves, where everyone’s arguing about placements of semi-colons and whether or not “provision” means the same thing as “deploy.” Then a lot of the other work also happens offline. When you’re between sessions where you’re going up to somebody from Germany and saying, “Okay look, you and I are disagreeing here. What is it that you need in order for us to get to a yes on this?” Then that work gets done as well. That’s happening constantly, 24/7, which is why this stuff can take all day long until midnight and you know, you use your translators as long as you can.

It’s hair-raising work. It’s a very adrenaline-filled activity. I did lose weight. It’s come back. A number of us noticed that we had all lost weight during this whole thing. You’ve brought your bag of nuts and that’s what you eat. I know this one woman had a locker full of freeze-dried food that she kept on the premises because she wanted to make sure she had something to eat. 

Scott Wallsten: I do that when I travel. I always carry snacks with me. But in these private negotiations that you had to have with people, is there time built into the schedule? Are you supposed to sort of like point somebody and say, come with me, let’s go outside. Is there time built into the schedule?

Ambassador Koh: Sometimes. Yeah, but just as often, you are saying to UAE or your speaking to China or you’re speaking to Russia and saying, “what is it that you need and here’s where we’re disagreeing. Can you find your way to come this far and what’s the reason for not taking this particular path?” and trying to understand what that is. You have to remember that there are delegates all over the place and delegations from everywhere, all handling different issues. You try to marry it all together. It gets really weird and complicated when you’re actually starting to do the horse-trading actually, and you’re trying to say, all right, if I come with you this way, will you come with me on this one? It just depends on what the priorities are for each country. 

Scott Wallsten: That’s another interesting aspect of this. I guess in some ways it seems to take place isolation from other things that are going on in the world. Like you just said, you know, we have to talk to Russia and China, which we do anyway, but like is it possible you could say, “Hey North Korea, Russia, China, we got to go talk to work out some spectrum deal,” and you work out some spectrum issue that has nothing to do with all of the conflicts. 

Ambassador Koh: So the idealistic answer or the politic answer really is that the ITU is a very specialized agency and all of these decisions and proposals are based on technical studies here. To some degree. It is very much insulated from, I think the general political sort of milleu against which this is happening. But I know to some degree, I think also it’s affected by those things. So certainly I think climate change was a factor in sort of the discussion of the 26 gigahertz band. The United States calls it the 24 gigahertz band because that’s the portion we’ll be using. But certainly climate change was part of the discussion there.  You see some of it creeping in.

Scott Wallsten: Why is 26 gigahertz related to climate change?

Ambassador Koh: As you probably recall, there were a lot of questions about whether or not deployment of 5G services would actually impact the ability of these weather data collection satellites to gather information on water vapor at the 23.6 [actually 23.8] GHz band. I think that raised the question of you know, climate change tracking and monitoring, weather events, et cetera. So that was something that was very much in question and also colored I think some of the debate while we were there. Countries, regions had very different takes on whether or not that that would be the case depending on what their technical studies showed.

Scott Wallsten: Where was Russia on this?

Ambassador Koh: Russia has a tendency to want to protect its scientific services and so they tend be very, very conservative when it comes to sharing with their scientific services or any scientific service. Now it’s not clear to me exactly what they have there, but they were very protective of this particular services. 

Scott Wallsten: Europe also is very protective, when you said Russia was protective of the scientific services, you mean they didn’t want there to be any risk that it would affect whether it would affect weather? 

Ambassador Koh: They had very, very stringent protection values offered for any sort of 5G deployment 

Scott Wallsten: I tend to think of them as not caring so much about climate change because the one country that might benefit from it. 

Ambassador Koh: Yeah, it’s very cold and Siberian. Not to make light of it, but what was interesting also, I asked China directly why they had offered a very stringent value for protections on the 26 gigahertz band. And they also said climate change, which was great. Interesting. Right? And then obviously the Europeans were very bullish on protecting the 26 gigahertz ban. They also had a very stringent value. Whereas Africa, the Arab nations, many countries in Asia had, and the United States and the Americas region had less stringent values for protections. Certainly everyone wanted to protect that band. We just were in very different places as to what we wanted to do. I think in the end, what we ended up with ultimately was really, I think you would have to call it a political decision that negative 33 would be sufficient to protect the weather service satellites. 

Scott Wallsten: I think you’re going to have to explain what negative 33 means. It sounds like Article 46 in Star Wars or Order 56 or whatever it was.

Ambassador Koh: Essentially what we’re looking at here are out of band emissions, the amount of energy that leaks out of the energy that gets put through a base station or a device. We want to make sure that the out of band emissions going into the 23.6 [actually 23.8] GHz band or the noise, essentially that’s going into the water vapor band, ends up being as minimal as possible to avoid polluting that band or corrupting the data in that band. Whereas the United States and the Americas region had come in with a negative 28 value, negative 28 decibel watts into 200 megahertz, I think the Russians come in with something like negative 55, and Europeans with negative 42 decibel watts into 200 megahertz. It was a real question as to whether or not we were going to be able to reconcile those. Ultimately, I think what we ended up with was negative 33 for the first eight years – negative 33 decibel watts into 200 megahertz. Then after eight years a step down to negative 39 which would be a more stringent value, but something that the manufacturers and equipment builders would have to build towards. 

Scott Wallsten: What are the implications of that? What kinds of services does that mean we will be able to have and we won’t be able to have?

Ambassador Koh: It means that, so for one thing, it sort of means that less of the 24 gigahertz band will be available to us because essentially you’re putting in guard rails essentially to keep the noise from getting into the protected end. When you talk about smaller portions of the spectrum or cutting off portions of the spectrum, you’re talking about smaller pipes essentially, right? Because you’re not going to be using the full set of spectrum that’s been allocated. The value of the spectrum is the giant fat pipes, big swaths, the spectrum through which you can sort of pour, like, you know, get your gigabit speeds. When you’ve reduced the size of that pipe, you get smaller speeds. 

Scott Wallsten: How do you feel about that outcome? Were you pleased or disappointed? 

Ambassador Koh: I think this was a good outcome. Ultimately, right? In the end we got to a place where we could actually start deploying 5G with the equipment that we have now. It may mean some adjustments to how somebody operators wanted to deploy it, but I think it means that they are actually able to access equipment and get started on actually building those ecosystems. So that’s a big plus for the United States.

We have done a lot in the way of preparing for millimeter wave deployments because they just some expect from that’s more available to us, much more available than say the mid band. Right. 

Scott Wallsten: That’s where we’ll get things from 5G right, exactly. 

Ambassador Koh: It’s exciting because United States can move quickly in millimeter wave deployments. We can be a good site for a good test bed, a good sandbox for anyone who wants to develop applications or services in the millimeter wave. That gives us a leg up on being the first to build the sandbox, the first be sort of the home for that ecosystem. 

Scott Wallsten: Did Huawei and the issue of other Chinese manufacturers come up during these because they would affect all kinds of these questions?

Ambassador Koh: Generally speaking, I think the millimeter wave spectrum identification issue sort of lifts all boats for the manufacturers. Everyone now knows what to build towards and there will be regional harmonization or even global harmonization in a lot of situations. What you’ll see is their ability to build to very definite specs and also to gain the economies of scale because they’re all producing for all countries at this specific band. 

Scott Wallsten: This wasn’t a case where one answer benefits Huawei or another?

Ambassador Koh: This is much more sort of an all boats kind of thing. What was interesting was that Huawei and Erickson wanted to see a lot of the 6 GHz band and this is where we start getting to the WRC-23 issues. They wanted to see the 6 GHz band studied for mid-band 5G and not just the 6 GHz band, but the very top of the 5 GHz at the very bottom, the 7 GHz band. They wanted the whole thing sort of identified or studied at the very least over the next four years to see if we could use that for 5G. it was a big push from China whenever I met with them on a bilateral basis. They wanted to see if we could be supportive. And of course you know that the FCC has an open proceeding on whether or not we’re going to use 6 GHz for unlicensed use. You asked a little earlier about how we get to our positions. A lot of our positions, at least in many instances, have to do with what our domestic policy is and how we sort of support and promote our domestic policies. In this instance, because we don’t have an answer on that 6 GHz proceeding, I was not willing to commit one way or the other to allow for one thing or the other. 

Scott Wallsten:  What would happen if, say what the 6 GHz proceeding the U.S. if it all went to unlicensed, and I know that’s a big assumption, but what would happen if all of that went licensed in the rest of the world?

Ambassador Koh: I think it would be very bad for the Wi-Fi manufacturers, right, because what they need obviously is global scale in order to be able to get the Wi-Fi equipment out there. What did happen was that Huawei and Ericsson were not successful and China were not successful in getting the entire 6 gigahertz ban studied for 5G. what you did find, however, and this is interesting because mid-band obviously is trickier than the millimeter wave, so teed up for WRC-23 is question of whether several bands are right for 5G mid-band identification and that includes portions of the C-band and then 3,300 to 3,400 megahertz. I think a chunk of the upper part of the 6 GHz band is also considered, but those chunks, those bands, most of them are being studied only for one region or another, meaning the United States and South America. North America and South America are considered Region 2. Asia is considered Region 3. Europe, Africa, the Middle East is Region 1. I’m sorry I did that all sorts of backwards, but regardless. What we’re finding is that that upper chunk of the 6 GHz band, is only being studied for 5G identification in Region 1. That’s largely because of the African push I think to want to find some spectrum for 5G.

Scott Wallsten: Why is African particular interested, African countries in particular interested? 

Ambassador Koh: Well to be honest, I think that they do use a lot of Huawei equipment and so I think it makes sense for them to want to see if that’s a viable place to be. But I didn’t see a huge amount of interest from the European countries individually. There was no interest in identifying 6 gigahertz for 5G in our America’s region. Certainly during our regional conference we did not see any interest and there was no appetite for doing that. But we are interested in seeing some portion of mid-band for 5G. We’ve identified other bands, 3,300 to 3,400 megahertz and 3,600 to 3,800 megahertz. 

Scott Wallsten: What do you think was the biggest accomplishment and biggest disappointment with the conference?

Ambassador Koh: The biggest accomplishments certainly was consensus without a vote, where you’re 3,400 people, 193 countries all agreeing. Just the fact that we were able to get to consensus without actually taking a vote is a huge accomplishment. Big priority for the United States was to come out with millimeter wave bands identified for 5G that were very much in line with the FCC’s Fast Plan and we did have that happen. So let’s take those definitely as accomplishments. 

We also came out with some very important ability to start coordinating non geosynchronous satellites and geosynchronous satellites in the V-band, which I think starts at 35 GHz or somewhere around there. Now I can never keep the letters straight, but those were very necessary coordination procedures that needed to happen in order for a number of U.S. satellite companies to begin launching those mega constellations and to actually coordinate them with the traditional geosynchronous satellites. That was a huge accomplishment to get those regulatory coordination procedures in place. Again, like with any other agenda item, each country comes in or the regions come in with their different positions. To harmonize that on a very complex topic is incredibly difficult. The fact that we were able to get that done was fantastic. Also coming up with a regulatory framework for these mega constellation satellites. Figuring out how to make sure that these 10,000 plus constellations are actually being deployed and not spectrum warehousing. That’s a big plus, and we actually came up with reasonable milestones for that and agreeing on any one of these things. It’s pretty amazing. 

I guess some of the things that we were less thrilled about, I think we would’ve liked to have seen the WRC agree on higher power usage for Wi-Fi, outdoor use for Wi-Fi. But you know, I think what we came away with is actually pretty good – what the WRC agreed to. the United States uses outdoor Wi-Fi and allows for higher power. We have specific conditions on how we tilt our antennas so that we don’t interfere with satellites and radars and other things, but we do allow for higher power use than the rest of the world. We would have liked to have seen the rest of the world adopt higher power, but that’s not something that they’re ready for and you know that’s fine. We’re going to continue to lead on that. I think we have a great competitive ecosystem for connectivity generally because of our outdoor use of  Wi-Fi and then you see cable sort of competing with mobile terrestrial services because of that outdoor use. And I think that’s a big plus.

Scott Wallsten: Let me ask you a question about the ITU more generally. What else is it good for anymore? I mean it used to be basically an organization that protected state monopolists that blocked all competition. Then they evolved into an organization that made sure that they had very high settlement rates of calls to and from the U.S. so that U.S. consumers, whoever they were here with subsidized foreign telephone companies. Now, I’m sure none of that’s controversial what I just said, but it seems like they’ve evolved into something different now. So like what do you think of the organization? What that I said before, let’s assume it’s right and not argument, but what’s different about it today? What else does it do now besides spectrum, it sounds like you need it. We need a forum for coordinating these things and the use them as the natural one. What else does it do that’s useful?

Ambassador Koh: The ITU has three bureaus. It’s got the ITU-R, which is the one I’ve been talking about, the ITU radio sector, which is where the radio regulations get updated. This is a very necessary sector. We need to be able to figure out how to keep our satellites and from banging into other satellites and in spectrum, we need to figure out how to coordinate the use of spectrum with our neighbors, etc. All right, so let’s just leave that one aside. 

ITU-T does their own standards as well, but they’ve been, you know there’s, I think a lot of people have been concerned that there’s some scope creep about what the ITU-T does if they get involved in, I think standards for technologies that may not be ripe for standards. They may be less transparent in terms of developing those standards. There is a good role for the ITU in terms of figuring out, you know, how to have those conversations. I don’t know that it necessarily covers, I don’t know that whether of the conversations at the ITU-T have necessarily been helpful or beneficial for the United States approach to emerging technologies. I think upcoming this year is the World Telecommunication Standardization assembly, which is the ITU-T, the major meeting for the ITU-T and there will be a host of things considered. 

Scott Wallsten: Global conferences on standards. Got to be exciting. 

Ambassador Koh: I guess we’re not going to see you in Hyderabad, Scott. 

Scott Wallsten: Don’t think so. 

Ambassador Koh: It’s too bad. I think you’d get a kick out of it and I think, you know, if you want it to go in and throw a couple of bombs, I think it would be kind of entertaining. 

Scott Wallsten: Well, you know, the last time I did go to one of these things, I ended up getting so frustrated, I just left and walked down the highway. 

Ambassador Koh: Where was that? 

Scott Wallsten: Lithuania. 

Ambassador Koh: Yeah, maybe I don’t think I want to see you wandering down that way. I’m not sure that would be safe.   Then there’s the ITU-D, which very interestingly there is an American woman who heads up the ITU development sector and that was a concerted push on our effort from this administration to actually bring more United States citizens into leadership at these UN specialized agencies. It’s very difficult for a U.S. person to take on leadership in a UN agency. Just, it’s very easy to sort of say, well, the U.S. you have everything anyway, so we’re not going to give you this other thing. But Doreen Bogdan-Martin is an extraordinary woman. I called her a unicorn before, but she is very well versed in the ITU. She’s worked at the it for quite some time, knows development world very well. It’s very odd also to have a developed country’s citizen be, you know, leader of the Development Bureau, but she’s also worked in this space for quite some time. She’s also a very interestingly the first woman to be a head of a major bureau at the ITU in its, I think, a hundred plus-year history, so that’s pretty impressive as well. It is also, so it’s unusual for someone from another developed country to lead one of these at a UN agency. 

Scott Wallsten: How did we get other countries to agree to that? Especially when people of other countries tend to, let’s just say, not be too pleased with the Trump administration and yet somehow the administration managed to make this happen. What happened?

Ambassador Koh: It’s pretty interesting. It’s a great question. I think, you know, when David Redl and Ajit Pai and Rob Strayer and Scott Pace and the U.S. delegation writ large, all worked together and reached out and do the work that they need to do to build the relationships and to support the U.S. position, we can actually do pretty well. We can be pretty effective. That’s essentially what happened on the ground at WRC for us. But certainly with getting Doreen Bogdan-Martin. She herself is actually quite impressive and she’s well-liked. We started with the right candidate. I think the U.S. delegation and really just pushed her forward and it was really impressive to see from what I understand. That happened in 2018 of November where she was elected and she’s gone through her first year. We’re really happy about that. She’s great.

Scott Wallsten: That’s an amazing story. But speaking of impressive, I would like to know a little bit more about your career. It’s such an unusual track. Usually people say when you look back at a career, you can see how you got there and made each turn. You could never predict it from the front. I’m not sure I can understand yours from front or the back. But you could have after getting your law degree, you could have been just a very highly paid lawyer. I don’t want to say just because obviously it’s a hard job. You’ve taken lots of different jobs and approaches and different things in public policy and as a civil servant, what has put you down this winding road.

Ambassador Koh: Yeah, I’m still stuck on the highly paid lawyer part. I wish I could say it was really directed, but it hasn’t been. I don’t like to be bored. I don’t know if that’s a failing or a strength. I’m not sure which, but I don’t like to be bored. When I had the opportunity to go to the House of Representatives, I went to the House and then I had the opportunity to go into the White House. That’s where I went because I wanted to see what that was like. And then this job. This one woman told me a third of your job should be stuff you can do right regularly, easily. A third of your job should be a stretch for you. And then a third of your job should be pure white-knuckled terror. 

I think for the past three to five years I’ve been doing essentially that and it’s served me well in terms of just keeping me interested, engaged, and teaching me a ton, helping me grow a lot. That’s why I think the past five years in public service have been amazing. Also, there’s nothing like public service, right? You just don’t have the same sense of mission outside of public service. I do think it’s good to go back and forth. In fact, I’d like to go back to the private sector because I think it’s important for people in the public sector, in public service, not to get a swelled head because you’re never as pretty or as smart or as funny or as interesting as when you worked for the government and you have some sway over things. But I think it’s important to sort of see the other side and make sure that you’re serving from each side as best you can. But why they’ve been so short, I don’t really know, but I think the opportunity to serve has been amazing and so even if I do go back to the private sector after this, I think I’ll probably come back to the public sector because it’s just so rewarding I think on a personal basis.

Scott Wallsten: You said a couple of things actually that contradict what a lot of people think about public service. Although first I need to tell a story. When I was working on my PhD, I took a year and I worked at the Council of Economic Advisors. That’s the staff economist job is for somebody in the middle of their PhD. Then when I was finished I went back to just being in my cubicle and working on my dissertation. The phone rang and I picked up. It was from the New York Times and I was like, “Oh crap, what does the New York Times want from me?” And of course what they wanted was to sell me a subscription! Because well, nobody wanted to talk to me anymore. But anyway, you’re saying there’s nothing like public service and all the kind of good work you can do. I think a lot of people, maybe not so much in Washington, but elsewhere we have this image of the bureaucrat who sits there and does nothing. But I think we all know so many people in government who work so hard and know their topics so well, so deeply. It’s kind of amazing. The other thing is you’re saying that basically the revolving door can be good.   I agree with that. We want people in government to understand outside of government, whether that’s firms or nonprofits or anything else and vice versa. 

Ambassador Koh: I’m a bona fide swamp creature here. 

Scott Wallsten: Parts of the swamp are good. Who doesn’t like those swamps in Florida? Beautiful!  

Ambassador Koh: You build a sort of immunity being in swamp. There are some people that get dropped in here and they just wither and die because they’re just not ready. It’s like small pox. 

Scott Wallsten: I mean, I don’t want to minimize parts of the swamp because we all know that, but there are, I think there are a lot of great things that people don’t realize. 

Sarah Oh: Are we swamp creatures? 

Ambassador Koh: Yes, Sarah, you’re definitely a swamp creature. I will count the think tanks. 

Sarah Oh: But we’re stronger for it! We survive the radioactive pollution..

Scott Wallsten: Well, now that we’ve started going into 1950’s Sci-Fi, it might be a good place to wrap up. Ambassador Koh, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for coming. 

Ambassador Koh: Thanks so much for having me.