OPINIONS regarding international electrical communications differ widely according as the sponsor is concerned with the operation of facilities or with their social, military, political or commercial employment; according as he is moved by general international or by particular national considerations; and according as he conceives either that electrical communications should be conducted on a public service basis similar to the post-office or that they should be left to competitive or monopolistic commercial exploitation.

Perhaps the broadest conception is that the entire world should be provided with adequate, interconnecting facilities, handling traffic in every direction at low rates, ultimately at nominal rates, and so organized as to prevent international or commercial controversies arising out of efforts to control communications for selfish purposes. This is carrying over to electrical communications the conception underlying the Universal Postal Union. Behind such a conception is a recognition that facilities for communication constitute highways of thought and commerce and a belief that international intercourse should be stimulated. As sometimes expressed, the international electrical communication, network constitutes the world's neutral system and every improvement in that system may be expected to contribute in the long run towards making possible world integration.

Others are blind to this vision of a world-wide network of communications or pooh-pooh it as fantastic idealism. They believe that their particular country should have such communication facilities and services as are required for social, military, political and commercial purposes, and in the field of international communications should gain for its nationals as many exclusive privileges and preferential advantages as possible. The proponents of this idea consider electrical communications a legitimate field for international rivalry.

Countries having dominions, colonies and possessions are found often to be interested in the provision of communication services with and between such territories. Notably has there been a growing appreciation in the British Empire of the desirability of adequate, nominal-rate services throughout the empire as an agency for furthering empire unity. A comprehensive imperial wireless scheme has been approved and is being worked out. Plans are under way for the duplication of the Canada-Australia cable, jointly owned and operated by Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A comprehensive empire system of communications would give the British Empire practically a world-wide system, as short connections only would be required to reach most countries.

Many officials in charge of commercial enterprises engaged in providing international communications services seem to resent any conception of communications other than that they should be left to private exploitation and should be free from national and international regulation, especially as regards rates. According to this view, governmental activity should be limited to protecting the interests of companies, to aiding them in securing privileges in other countries, and in some instances to the furnishing of subsidies. These officials assert that along many of the great international trade routes their companies have fully met commercial needs, save possibly during exceptional circumstances such as were created by the World War, and that through reduced rates for press messages and for deferred services they have met other needs. Obviously all the factors involved in international communications must be weighed in passing judgment on such assertions and assumptions. At bottom, however, there is clearly a marked difference between a conception of international communication services conducted for profit and of such services conducted on a public service basis. A postal service handling letters generally throughout the world for two or five cents each is conceived on a radically different basis from one which fixes its charges by distance and by what the traffic will bear and avoids unprofitable activities.


As diplomatic negotiations are now largely carried on or directed by cable, and as perhaps no code can be devised that can not be broken, foreign offices today are much concerned with the accuracy and speed with which messages are handled and with the degree of trust that can be placed in the transmitting agency. It is particularly in times of international crisis and of war that they require assured services, passing through the fewest possible intermediate jurisdictions, and also available alternative routes. Discussions regarding the place at which an international conference is to be held often revolve around the availability of suitable services of communication.

Among naval and military authorities there is a growing appreciation of the communications factor. The almost worldwide cable system controlled by the British, partly governmentally operated and partly existing as a result of subsidies, made possible at the outbreak of the World War a prompt mobilization of the moral and material forces of the empire and during the war proved of the greatest value. The bulk of the world's cable traffic was subject to the scrutiny of British censors --and war-time censorships tend more and more to serve purposes of economic control.

One result of the development of radio has been greatly to modify naval strategy. The naval power possessing suitably located radio shore stations has perhaps a decisive advantage over a rival less well equipped. The time is soon coming when a British naval vessel need never be out of reach of a radio station situated on British soil and through that station it will have access to empire-wide cable and radio facilities.

Military and naval requirements have resulted in the erection by governments of many radio stations primarily for such purposes. Many of these stations, however, are available in time of peace for the handling of national and international traffic. But efforts to utilize the extensive American naval services for handling messages other than government have been opposed by American cable and radio commercial interests.

Military considerations, as well as national pride and the desire to avoid censorships and dependence upon neighbors, are leading to the erection by the smaller nations of expensive high-powered radio stations for which there is little economic justification.

The precise part played by communication services in the conduct and development of international trade is, of course, impossible to gauge. It is clear, however, that an importing and exporting center requires adequate international communications services at reasonable rates. The difficult question of rates bobs up continually. What constitutes reasonable rates depends, of course, upon many factors. From the standpoint of the trader a reasonable rate is a rate which does not hamper him in the transaction of business. Often he is concerned with comparative rates; for example, the American exporter wants as low a rate to China as that enjoyed by his Western European competitor. And both would like as low a rate as that enjoyed by their Japanese competitors!

Large transactions, financial or commercial, can be carried on despite high communications rates or even despite discriminatory rates. On the contrary, the direction taken by smaller transactions is frequently determined by relative advantages of communication. Transactions in commodities or securities whose prices fluctuate markedly are largely carried on by telegraph, cable or radio. The successful, competitive operation of shipping requires a wide range of communication contacts free from adverse services and rates of a discriminating nature. It is no mere coincidence that London is at once the financial and commercial center of the world, the cable center, and the principal news center.

The extent to which the range and quantity of news distribution is affected by communication services and rates is a matter of growing international concern.

In this connection it is sometimes pointed out that through the spread of education this has become a literate world, that newspapers are now read everywhere, that popular government is spreading throughout the world, that foreign relations are becoming more intimate, that foreign questions are being passed upon by electorates, that newspapers are the most cogent force in the creation of current public opinion--particularly in regard to international affairs as to which the ordinary individual has no opportunity for personal knowledge,--that the flow of news is largely conditioned by communication services and by press rates, and that high press rates make easier the control of the distribution of news by governments and by vested interests.

In estimating the part played by press rates it is necessary to keep in mind that only a relatively few newspapers--in many countries none--have developed as commercial enterprises to the point where they can afford to pay much for individual news services or for news agency reports. Consequently any press rate, other than a nominal rate, is unsatisfactory, if the aim be to bring about a generous flow of news in all directions throughout the world.

Although there is by no means an unlimited demand for international news or everywhere a willingness to publish unbiased reports, there can be no doubt that nominal press rates would greatly stimulate the flow of international news, would encourage many more newspapers and periodicals to maintain correspondents abroad, and would make more difficult the supression or manipulation of news. The conception of adequate communication facilities transmitting press messages at nominal rates is a constructive and enlarged approach to one aspect of the freedom of the press, freedom to print being strengthened by some machinery encouraging the widest possible gathering of news.

Whether this is desirable or not of course depends upon one's predilections. A good many professional diplomats believe in the necessity of their directing the distribution of news. For many years there have been low press rates and an extensive exchange of news between the several European countries, yet it is pointed out that the World War came just the same. International news services, however, while they may be expected to help break down provincialism and to throw the spotlight of publicity on many problems, can scarcely be expected to prevent conflicts arising out of fundamental racial, religious, political and economic differences. An authority in the field of international news has given as his opinion that one of the contributing causes to the World War may be found in the unfortunate way in which news services were organized in Europe.

British Empire Press Conferences have gone on record as favoring the establishment of a press rate of a penny a word between any two points within the empire, however far apart they may be. They have opposed the subsidizing of newspapers or of news services by governments, and they do not regard the establishment of low press rates as a subsidy to the press but as a contribution towards the unity of the empire. Certainly no such rate is likely to be made by any commercial enterprise, and it is problematical whether, as an incident to other services, it can be made by a government-owned system without involving considerable losses. In any event there are many, and by no means uninfluential, people who believe that nominal press rates are of sufficient social and political importance to justify the tax payer meeting a deficit, on precisely the same theory that he provides funds for highways and schools.


As might be expected, a number of international controversies have arisen over efforts to get or to retain advantages regarding communications. That the number is not larger is due in part to the International Telegraph Convention and its accompanying regulations. While the scope of this agreement is essentially limited to facilitating the international exchange of traffic, the working relations that have resulted between government administrations and companies have brought about a certain degree of international comity.

When cables were first developed Great Britain already had a colonial empire. Naturally enough the laying of cables between the different parts of the empire received official encouragement and attracted British capital. In consequence Great Britain at once achieved and has maintained a supremacy in the manufacture of submarine cable and cable apparatus, in the extent of her trained personnel, and in the number of miles of cable owned. As Germany became a colonial power, built up a navy, a merchant marine and overseas trade, the desirability of becoming independent of Great Britain in the matter of cables became increasingly apparent to her. The manufacture of cable in Germany was therefore encouraged and in time an extensive system of German cables was laid. Progress in this field was opposed both by the British Government and by British cable companies. As far as the writer is aware, the cable rivalry between Great Britain and Germany is the only international controversy over communications which has been systematically studied and written about.[i]

Immediately following the outbreak of war the German cables in the British Channel were cut. Later the other German cables were cut, including two lying between New York and the Azores. Besides this certain lengths were taken up and other cables were diverted. Among these last were the two which connected Borkum (Emden), the Azores and New York. One of them was diverted to connect Penzance (England), the Azores and Halifax; the other to connect Brest, the Azores and New York, the terminal in the latter city being transferred to the offices of a French cable company. Some of the actions of the various allies as to the German cables were clearly justified as legitimate war activities, but others seem to indicate a purpose to dismember permanently the German cable system and to strengthen their own.

At the Peace Conference the German cables were the subject of considerable discussion. The United States insisted upon the restoration of pre-war services, at least so far as the transatlantic cables were concerned, pointing out that the diversion of these cables injured the United States quite as much as it injured Germany. France and Great Britain, having previously reached an understanding regarding them, would not consent to their reestablishment. By the treaty of peace, Germany renounced in her own behalf and in behalf of her nationals all title to the cables in favor of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers. Although extended negotiations have since taken place, the powers have been unable to come to an agreement regarding the distribution of the cables, with the exception of the relatively unimportant cables radiating from Yap. The powers which seized and diverted them are still in possession.

British and Danish companies hold concessions by virtue of which they claim the exclusive rights until 1931 to land cables on the coasts of China and to exchange traffic with the Chinese overland telegraph system. They assert that their concessions cover radio. The concessions were secretly obtained, and the monoply provisions have been challenged by the United States as constituting violations of treaty rights. In 1900, during the Boxer troubles, when the first extensions of the concessions were made, apparently one object of the companies was to prevent the laying of a transpacific cable except upon such terms as they might dictate. In this they succeeded, as in the present transpacific cable--which was laid to forestall an American governmental one --the British company has a half interest and the Danish company a quarter interest. No competing cable has been laid. In the face of the cable concessions China has granted several radio concessions, one to a Japanese company conferring a long time monoply over external radio communications. Despite British, Danish, and Japanese protests China has also granted a non-monopolistic concession for a high-powered radio station and certain secondary stations to an American company, which during the course of negotiations received the vigorous backing of the American Government.

Electrical communications in the Pacific formed an item on the agenda of the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armament. For various reasons the subject was not taken up. Nevertheless, the development of comprehensive cable and radio systems in the North Pacific, operated in a manner to meet the various needs and organized in a manner to prevent conflicts between the nations concerned, offers an opportunity for constructive statesmanship.


Early in the development of telegraphs in Europe frontiers were met, and international agreements had to be made for the exchange of traffic and for the forwarding of through traffic. The various agreements crystallized in the International Telegraph Convention of 1875 with its annexed service regulations. The convention has remained unchanged, but the regulations have been the subject of several revisions. Although the convention and regulations grew out of immediate European needs, most of the countries of the world have adhered to the convention, the notable exceptions being China, where communication services have largely been dominated by foreign companies, and the United States, which alone among the great powers has not gone in for a large measure of government ownership and operation.

While the status of companies engaged in commercial communication enterprises is none too clear, in practice their views have been given friendly consideration whenever changes in the regulations have been contemplated. They on their side, with the exception of American cable companies, abide by the international service regulations. Even the American companies comply with all but a few of them, and the departures are tolerated by the foreign governments partly out of an unwillingness to coerce the American companies and partly because the deviations concern American interests more than foreign.

Besides objecting to certain of the international regulations, the American companies have been opposed to adherence on the broad ground that the convention is essentially a compact between nations operating their own telegraph systems. As Congress has never undertaken to provide for the somewhat dubious project of regulating unilaterally international communications, American non-adherence to the convention leaves the companies free from regulation of their international traffic, except to the extent that foreign governments assert control over operations in their respective jurisdictions.

The present International Radio-Telegraph Convention and Regulations date from 1912. Owing to subsequent developments in radio both the convention and the regulations require extensive revision and amendment. Most of the nations, including the United States, but with a far-reaching reservation, are parties to the radio-telegraph agreement. By cross reference many articles of the Telegraph Convention are incorporated in the Radio-Telegraph Convention and Regulations.

Meetings of the signatories to the telegraph and to the radiotelegraph conventions were postponed because of the World War. In view of the obvious need of them, and largely as an outgrowth of the discussions over the seized German cables and a somewhat nebulous discussion of the internationalization of cables, there was adopted during the course of the Peace Conference the following resolution:

The Principal Allied and Associated Powers shall, as soon as possible, arrange for the convoking of an International Congress to consider all international aspects of communication by land-line telegraphs, cables, or wireless telegraphy, and to make recommendations to the Principal Allied and Associated Powers with a view to providing the entire world with adequate facilities of this nature on a fair and equitable basis.[ii]

On October 8, 1920, a preliminary conference of representatives of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers met at Washington. It worked through several committees. The reports of these, other than those dealing with the former German cables and the improvement of facilities between the participating powers, while not published, have been furnished to the nations of the world and to the principal cable and radio companies for criticism and suggestion.

The conference considered a wide range of subjects, many of them of a highly technical character. Although the subject was taken up, no agreement was reached for distribution of the former German cables. In the discussions regarding the improvement of communication services between the participating powers, the American representatives were little more than spectators. As the other four powers conduct communication services, they were in a position not only to consider constructive proposals but to bind themselves to carry them out.

During the coming year further international meetings will be held to discuss international electrical communication matters. There will probably be at the same time meetings of the signatories to the Telegraph Convention and to the Radio-Telegraph Convention and also a continuation of the Washington Communications Conference and of the work of a technical radio committee which met at Paris in 1921.


Only the barest outline can be given here of the communications problems which require, or are susceptible of, international consideration. Of such subjects some demand consideration by the powers generally, others only by the powers immediately concerned. Arrangements for telephone or telegraph facilities for through operation come in the latter class.

As radio emanations do not respect man-made political borders, radio operations and practices are of general international concern. There is need for international agreements providing for the classification of wave lengths, for their allocation for different classes of service and, in the case of wave lengths employed in long distance transmission, for their allocation among the nations. The question arises as to where lies the ultimate right to determine who may use or who may not use a given wave for transmission. Private enterprise and possibly certain nations believe that prescriptive rights can be obtained. If this is true, invaluable rights are being obtained by a process analogous to squatting.

Inasmuch as a given message in its course to its destination may be transmitted by telephone, telegraph, cable, radio and even by means of sound and visual signals and may traverse any number of countries, there is an apparent need for uniformity in service regulations. To insure such uniformity, the proposal has been made that along with the revision and extension of the present telegraph and radio regulations the conventions be amalgamated, and that sound and visual signalling be included.

The only rates fixed by existing telegraph regulations are European terminal and transit rates, the European countries having agreed upon uniform rates. Were all the communications of the world government operated, there presumably would come about in time uniform terminal and transit rates throughout the world, or rates based on a world-wide system of zones.

As the grant by a country of a telegraph, cable, or radio monopoly covering its external communications affects other countries, as has been pointed out in the case of monopolies granted by China, the Washington Communications Conference considered the possibility of an international agreement obligating the signatories not to grant or to support their nationals in seeking monopoly rights except under unusual and specified circumstances. Such a proposal is in line with American policy, as the United States has not granted monopolies and apparently favors competition. But whether competition between American companies, and between them and foreign companies and governments, is in American or international public interest or in the interest of the communication companies is debatable.

Since for effective operation a cable should not exceed by very much two thousand miles, certain islands, like the Azores and the Hawaiian, are strategic cable relay points. As the local business is often negligible, the suggestion was offered at the Conference at Washington that the nations owning such strategetically located islands agree to make them freely available for cable relay purposes, free from tax and free from censorship, even to a considerable degree in war time.

Such a proposal raises the whole question of the status of communication services in war time, and particularly of the status of cables. The actions of the Allies in cutting, taking up and diverting German cables and requiring their renunciation by Germany, even though the cables were privately owned, constitute precedents disquieting to cable companies and tending to encourage the erection of high-powered radio stations in preference to the laying of cables. The subject of the status of cables in war time has long been discussed. President Buchanan's message to Queen Victoria upon the opening of the first transatlantic cable touched upon it. The Washington Communications Conference looked at the subject, but did not get very far.

At the Washington Communications Conference the question was also brought up as to whether existing laws and international agreements are so phrased as to afford protection to copyrighted material transmitted by radio. As radio messages can be intercepted by others than the station to which they are directed, the further question arises as to whether the transmitting station is in any way responsible for the content of messages. For example, a radio station transmits in the regular course a libelous message or a message offensive to a friendly power. Does the fact that the message may be generally intercepted, and is so intercepted, provide grounds for action against the station by the person defamed or for complaint by the nation affected?


Before leaving the subject of international electrical communications, which at the most charitable estimate has merely been touched upon, something needs be said about the attitude of the various governments. There seems to be a general recognition of the need for uniform operating and traffic regulations and for rather detailed technical understandings regarding radio. Naturally there are wide, but not insurmountable differences of opinion as to the scope and details of such agreements.

While there is some doubt as to whether general international understandings can be reached to check the granting to commercial enterprises of radio and cable monopolies affecting international communications, and to make generally available strategetic islands and other places suitable for cable relay purposes, there appears to be a willingness to discuss these questions.

On the other hand there is much doubt as to the desirability or feasibility of attempting to bring about an international agreement defining the status of cables in war time. The subject bristles with difficulties and certainly is not likely to be taken up until after Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and America have reached an agreement regarding the former German cables.

Generally speaking, governments owning and operating services have shown a willingness to consider specific proposals for the provision of additional facilities for international traffic or for the joint provision of international cables. It is an open secret that certain governments would like to take up with the American Government the question of jointly providing certain facilities and services and jointly regulating the rates of international connections provided by commercial enterprises.

As to the broad conception of an international network operated on a basis of world-wide public service, the government operating administrations have usually a sympathetic attitude, which is due in part to the example afforded by the Universal Postal Union.

A thorough survey would require the presentation of the policies and interests of each of the nations, but this is out of the question here.

In Japan there is complete government ownership and operation, with the single exception of a Danish owned cable laid long before Japan had adopted a communications policy. In Japan, as in some other countries, there is an apparent difficulty in harmonizing the radio interests of the communications department and those of the navy. While Japan's immediate concern in communications lies in the Far East, her government takes an active interest in world-wide communications and a particular interest in the improvement of services with the United States.

In Great Britain, the Dominions and the British possessions generally there is a large degree of government ownership and operation. Nevertheless several of the great cable systems of the world are operated by British companies and British private enterprise is encouraged to some extent in radio. The working balance which has been struck between government activity and private enterprise has given a commanding position to the British. Although of all the powers Great Britain is best able to take care of its own interests, the policy of the government has been to approach international communication matters in a broad and liberal manner.

As the practice of the United States--it can scarcely be called a policy--has been to leave the establishment and conduct of its international communications services to private enterprise, very largely American and unregulated as to international services, America in this regard is in a unique position among the nations. To what extent, under the circumstances, the American Government should participate in general international communications conferences is a question that concerns not only the United States but the other countries as well. Without taking a new tack the United States certainly can not participate in limited international arrangements looking toward the joint provision, by the countries immediately concerned, of new facilities or the joint regulation of rates of services provided by commercial enterprises.

No attempt will be made here to discuss the various courses open to the American Government or to conjecture the attitude that it is likely to adopt. Certain general statements, however, may be in place. The pressure of events will probably force it to take a more lively interest than heretofore in international communications and in communications with and between its possessions. The political, military, and naval significance of communications are becoming better understood; the American press is taking an interest in communications as affecting the import and export of news; and commerce and shipping are becoming aware of their requirements.

The actions of other countries, too, affect the United States. The American army and navy regard the development of communication facilities abroad as having an immediate bearing on their own concerns. The fact that the British Government now operates services between Canada and Great Britain affects American communication companies and other American interests. Readjustments of services and rates to aid foreign trade and news distribution promptly react on American interests.

The character of forthcoming general communications conferences will be largely influenced by whether or not the United States participates. With the United States not participating, the conferences will be composed of delegates representing countries having either complete or at least a large degree of public ownership and operation. With the United States participating, efforts will be made to compromise the interests of commercial enterprises with the interests of government operated systems. If the United States participates solely to further the immediate interests of American cable and radio companies, its participation will not be relished by those who envisage a worldwide network of communications operated on a public service basis.

[i] Charles Lesage: La rivalité Anglo-Germanique. Les cables sous-marins allemands. Paris. Plon-Nourrit, 1915.

[ii] Includes telephones and wireless telephony. The existing telegraph regulations contain telephone provisions.

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  • WALTER S. ROGERS, Director of the Foreign Cables Division of the Committee on Public Information from 1917 to 1919, delegate to the International Conference on Electrical Communications 1920-1922, adviser to the American Delegation at the Washington Conference, 1921-1922
  • More By Walter S. Rogers