Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation

Scope and Content

The records of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation reflect the history of Commonwealth co-operation in the field of international telecommunications. The collection is arranged into five general classes:
1. Imperial Communications Advisory Committee, 1928-1945
2. Commonwealth Communications Council, 1944-1949
3. Commonwealth Telecommunications Board, 1949-1969
4. Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), Commonwealth Telecommunications Council (CTC), and Commonwealth Telecommunications Bureau, 1966-1987
5. Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), Commonwealth Telecommunications Bureau and the Commonwealth Telecommunications Council (CTC) after 1987
Each class represents the surviving records of the body that administered Commonwealth telecommunications relations during a particular period. Within each class, the material falls into three broad categories: the annual reports of the administrative body; the minutes, proceedings and memoranda of that body; the proceedings and minutes of committees and subcommittees appointed by the body. Most of this material is collected, by year, into bound volumes. In addition, the collection contains material (in files and bound volumes) that was not generated by the incumbent administrative body, but does relate to Commonwealth telecommunications during the lifetime of that institution and was presumably retained for use in the course of its activities or for reference purposes. Much of this material relates to the reports and proceedings of the Commonwealth Telecommunication Conferences under whose authority the administrative body derived its mandate. In each class, this material is listed under the heading General Documents.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) promotes, through collaborative projects, the growth of international telecommunications throughout the Commonwealth. The organisation endeavours to link its commitment to development and training to the benefits attached to the creation and extension of commercial opportunities.
Commonwealth collaboration in international telecommunications dates back to 1902. During this period the nature and scope of formal Commonwealth collaboration in this field has undergone profound change. In most respects, this change reflects technological development and, by extension, the commercial nature of the telecommunications business and, of course, the changing status and functions of the Commonwealth. The CTO is the present institutional manifestation of this wider evolution.
The earliest substantive example of Commonwealth collaboration was the establishment of the Pacific Cable Board (PCB). The first submarine telegraph cables linking Britain with the other commonwealth dominions of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were laid by cable companies. These companies were unwilling to meet the expense of laying a cable across the Pacific from Canada to Australia. The Dominion governments considered that the link was necessary for the enhancement of imperial strategic security and imperial trade. The PCB was given the responsibility of constructing and managing the cable, which was laid in 1902. In subsequent years the board established and operated facilities in other parts of the Commonwealth.
The commercial development of long-distance radio transmission by the Marconi company led to the introduction in the 1920s of beam radiotelegraphy between Britain and Australia, Canada, India and South Africa. This new medium posed a threat to the commercial interests of British long-distance cable companies. In 1928 the inter-governmental Imperial Wireless and Cable Conference was convened to discuss the situation. This produced a report recommending, inter alia, the formation of a single communications company to take over and operate all the communications systems of all wireless and cable companies throughout the Commonwealth and Empire, including the British Post Office (BPO) and the Pacific Cable Board. This company (Imperial and International Communications Ltd) later became known as Cable and Wireless Limited. Since then, Cable and Wireless has continued to play an important commercial and training role in Commonwealth telecommunications.
The 1928 conference also led to the creation of the Imperial Communications Advisory Committee (ICAC), which the new company was required to consult on any questions of policy, including alterations in rates. Australia, Britain, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, New Zealand and South Africa were represented on this committee. British committee members were usually drawn from British Dominion Office personnel and Dominion officials came from the respective high commissions in London. A Colonial Office official represented the British Colonies and Protectorates.
In making these arrangements the 1928 Conference was particularly concerned to ensure that the competing technologies of wireless and cable transmission was integrated and harmonised to maximise the benefits to the Commonwealth as a whole.
The Second World War had a considerable impact on Commonwealth telecommunications and in 1942 a Commonwealth Conference in Australia recommended that the advisory committee should be reconstituted. It was replaced by the Commonwealth Communications Council (CCC), with its members now being resident in their own countries. This change was effected in 1944 and the new council met in London on five occasions between 1944 and 1949. Much of its time and effort was devoted to devising ways and means of improving the central co-ordination of Commonwealth telecommunications, a matter which the governments regarded as essential for the consolidation and strengthening of the Commonwealth system.
In 1945 Lord Reith, at the request of the British Government, undertook a tour of the Dominions, including India, in order to discuss with the governments the new proposals put forward by London. This tour prepared the way for a Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference in London in that same year. The conference was attended by representatives of the Dominions, as well as Southern Rhodesia and India. The central recommendation was for the nationalisation of all overseas telecommunications in the Commonwealth and for the establishment of a strong central co-ordinating body. This new central body would replace the CCC and was to be known as the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board.
These recommendations were accepted and embodied in the Commonwealth Telegraphs Agreement, signed in London on 11 May 1948. Provision was included in the agreement for operating agreements to be signed between each partner government, its national (operating) body and the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board. (The 1948 Agreement was later modified by a Supplemental Agreement, dated 25 July 1963, which substituted a revised form of operating agreement). South Africa ceased to be a partner government in 1961 on leaving the Commonwealth. Similarly, Southern Rhodesia left in 1969.
The Commonwealth Telecommunications Board was incorporated in the United Kingdom on 31 May 1949 by the Commonwealth Telegraphs Act 1949. The board held its first meeting on 10 November 1949. It was composed of an independent Chairman (appointed jointly by all the partner governments), one member from each of the individual governments, and one member appointed by Britain to represent the colonies and protectorates. These members were normally resident in London and the board met regularly at fortnightly intervals.
The Board's functions, as originally specified in the CTA, was wide-ranging, but in practice the Board's efforts over the years were mainly consultative, coordinative and advisory, directed towards the efficient development and use of the Commonwealth telecommunications network. Associated with this objective was the important task of administering the Partners' joint financial arrangements known as the First Wayleave Scheme.
Under the Wayleave Scheme, which was in force until 1972/73, each national body kept its own net revenue (calculated by an agreed deduction from its gross receipts) and made such use of the Commonwealth 'common-user' system as it desired. The expenses incurred by each national body in maintaining and operating its part of the system were calculated in an agreed manner. The total expenses of the whole common-user system were then allocated among national bodies in proportion to the net revenue each received of the total net revenue of all national bodies. The resultant debits were set against the common-user expenses incurred by each national body and the differences settled as net Wayleave payments or receipts.
Reviews of these financial arrangements took place in 1952, 1958, 1964 and 1966, the first and the third being held under the auspices of the Board, the second and fourth in conjunction with Commonwealth Telecommunications Conferences.
Despite the post-war expansion of long-distance radio links and their increased operating efficiency, by 1956 it was apparent to the CTB that the growing demand for telecommunications facilities could not be adequately met by this means. The Board therefore drew up and recommended to partner governments plans for a round-the-world submarine telephone cable system to serve the trunk routes of the Commonwealth network. This cable system would employ the newly developed coaxial cable technique with submerged repeaters. A Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference was convened in London in 1958 to review the plans for the project. Because of the huge extra costs involved in the project it was recommended that separate financial arrangements should apply to all services carried by the new cable system. This resulted in a new Second Wayleave Scheme embodied in a new arrangement and based on the same principles as the First. The Second Wayleave Scheme added to the practical tasks of organising the installation and subsequent exploitation of the new cable system. In order to cope with the increased work load a new body, the Commonwealth Cable Management Committee (CCMC), was established by those Commonwealth countries that financed the project.
The expanding demand for broad band systems on some of the shorter Commonwealth routes (e.g. Caribbean) led to the employment of other media, notably tropospheric scatter and VHF radio systems.
The development of satellite technolgy in the early 1960s presented new opportunities in international telecommunications. It also posed new financial problems for the Commonwealth partnership. For these reasons a Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference was held in London, in 1965. In the light of these new technological developments the conference recognised the need to devise new collaborative financial arrangements, as well as review the existing arrangements for collaboration. Having arranged for a meeting of financial experts and a committee to review the organisation the conference adjourned. It reconvened in 1966 to consider the reports of these bodies and to frame recommendations to the member governments.
The 1966 Conference recommended that a new Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) should be established. It would be made up of a council composed of representatives of partner governments and a bureau based in London to function under the control and direction of the council. It would hold Commonwealth conferences every three years.
The 1966 Conference also recommended the termination of the Commonwealth Telegraphs Agreements of 1948 and 1963 and the incorporation of all existing financial arrangements in a new single financial agreement. These recommendations were accepted by all the partner governments and the CTO came into being in 1967. The first meeting of the Council took place in April 1967 and the Bureau was established in 1968-9. Transfer of the old Board's functions to the organisation occurred in April 1969, following the signing of a new Financial Agreement, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Financial Arrangements (CTFA), and the termination of the old CTAs.
In 1973 a new unified accounting arrangement was introduced under the Commonwealth Telecommunications Financial Agreement. Throughout the 1970s, however, advances in technology were complicating accounting arrangements, and commercial pressures were creating dissatisfaction regarding some aspects of the arrangements, particularly among the more developed national bodies. Following the 1977 Conference, a Committee of Council for the Development of Financial Arrangements (CCDFA) recommended that the CTFA be replaced.
Alongside these developments, steps were being taken to terminate the Commonwealth cable system. Increasingly cables were laid in co-operation with non-Commonwealth administrations. In this case it was a straightforward matter to cancel the CTFA pooling arrangements and allow the cables to revert to the circuit allocations of each owner. For the older cables, the cable owners agreed to operate a simplified form of the cost-sharing scheme until the cables reached the end of their useful lives. The last of these cables was taken out of commission in 1986 and the Commonwealth Cable Management Committee was disbanded.
The 1982 Conference endorsed the scheme as proposed by Council and recommended to governments that the CTFA 1973 be terminated on 1 April 1983 and be replaced with a new agreement (CTOFA 1983) to operate from that date. The CTOFA had two functions. First, to provide a new accounting arrangement (CAA) for the member governments. Second, to provide start-up funding for collaborative projects, termed Non-Financial Collaborative Arrangements (NFCA). This later became known as the Programme for Development and Training (PDT). Funding under the CTOFA came in the form of annual pledges from national bodies. Members were organised into contribution groups with their annual contributions being based on their ability to pay.
Concurrent with the introduction of the CTOFA 1983, Council revised the machinery to deal with other collaborative arrangements. A management board (BOM) was established, comprising eight council representatives from developed and developing national bodies to oversee the disbursement of funds to both the CAA and the PDT. The Board was disbanded at the Twenty-fifth meeting of Council and its mandate was assumed by the Council. Four new bodies were constituted to assume direct control over specific aspects of the CTOFA. The Consultative Committee on Collaborative Arrangements (CCCA); the Operational and Development Group (ODG), the Accounting Arrangements Contact Officers Group (AACOG) were all composed of representatives from the national bodies. The fourth body was the Commonwealth Telecommunications Bureau. The Bureau is the secretariat of the organisation and works under the direction of the General Secretary . It provides administrative and logistical support to the Conference, the Council, its groups and committees.
In 1986, three years after the new financial arrangements were inaugurated, it was agreed at Conference that the division of funds between the CAA and the PDT should be altered. In three years, from 1986-9, the PDT's share of CTOFA funds would be increased from 10% to 50%. It was agreed that this would be effected through an increase in overall funding with a possible reduction in the amount given over to accounting arrangements. With this in mind Council undertook a survey in that year of the telecommunications needs of the developing national bodies, which resulted in a number of larger projects being undertaken, including significant rehabilitation exercises involving the loan of expertise and the provision of essential parts.
The spread of digital technology put a good deal of strain on relations within the organisation and, by extension, on its various functions. On the one hand the demand for international telecommunications throughout the 1980s continued to increase. Even during economic recessions the level of international telecommunications traffic continued to grow. Meeting this demand required a continuing expansion of broad band telecommunications transmission facilities. The CTO played an important role in ensuring a regular flow of information on future plans and their integration into the wider Commonwealth system. But at the same time two notable developments took place within the Commonwealth. First, many counties were extending the number of direct circuits with other non-commonwealth countries. There was, therefore, a declining need for a Commonwealth network. Second, the more developed countries adopted digital technology to extend their range of services. By 1992 two thirds of all
national bodies had digital satellite transmission facilities, much of this in the form of transglobal digital fibre optic cables. Unfortunately in Africa there were no plans to extend this system beyond French-speaking West Africa.
At the Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference in 1992, the governments agreed to Council's proposal that the CTO's preferential adjustments under the Commonwealth Accounting Arrangements should be terminated, while at the same time extending the scope and scale of the Programme for Development and Training (PDT). Cost constraints, along with privatisation and commercialisation, appear to have driven this decision. Even with these changes, some doubt existed over whether national bodies were prepared to fund the extension of the PDT. With funding a central issue, the CTO was directed by conference to establish a working group to investigate this issue. The issue of funding was important: administrative costs had risen from £0.94 to £0.99 million. Another issue at this time was outstanding debts carried over from the old CTFA liabilities.
By the following year major funding and organisational changes were anticipated, based on the findings of a CTO working party (the Genting Group). The working party's recommendations were endorsed by the 1992 Conference. The emphasis henceforth would be placed on training and the 'commercial interests of the service providers'. For some country members these changes did not go far enough. This issue, coupled with new proposals for contributions (switching from voluntary to mandatory contributions with a view to stabilising the CTO's funding) led to protests from New Zealand or Australia. These members gave notice that they were withdrawing their membership.
In early March 1993, Australia and New Zealand, still members, continued to express concerns regarding their contributions. Another working party, the Windsor Group, was appointed to investigate the future role of the bureau.
By 1995 the organisation had come through a difficult five year period of restructuring and policy reappraisal. This transitional period formally culminated in the approval by council at its thirty-fourth meeting of a new constitution. But these changes were not without their cost. Both New Zealand and Australia left the organisation in wrangles over unpaid contributions and moneys due from the CTFA funds. Moreover, Canada gave notice that it would withdraw its membership in 1996. This was later withdrawn, pending a revision of its contributions. In contrast, by mid-1997 there was a strong possibility that South Africa would rejoin the CTO.
Item CTO 4.2.5. is an undated and unattributed 'History of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, 1928-1969'


The five classes are arranged and listed chronlogically. In the list, the title of each class gives the name of the administrative body, that body's acronym, and the period of its existence. Within each class, documents are arranged in series according to record type.

Access Information

Open although advance notice should be given. Records less than ten years old will not be available for access without permission of the CTO. Access to individual items may also be restricted under the Data Protection Act or Freedom of Information legislation.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued to item level (see link to repository catalogue).

Archivist's Note

Compiled 2000, revised by Alan Kucia as part of the RSLP AIM25 Project, Aug 2001.

Separated Material

Cable and Wireless plc, London, UK holds Pacific Cable Board: annual reports, proceedings of general meetings, ledgers, photographs, 1892-1962; Imperial and International Communications Ltd: annual reports, other records, 1929-1933; Cable and Wireless: records, c1900-1980 (ref. BAC) [National Register of Archives 21652 Cable and Wireless].
Guildhall Library, London, UK, holds Cable and Wireless: records, c1929-1954 (ref: Ms 24277-82) [NRA 35301 Globe].

Conditions Governing Use

A photocopying service is available, at the discretion of the ICS Library staff. Copies are supplied solely for research or private study. Requests to publish, or quote from original material shoul dbe submitted to the Information Resources Manager.

Custodial History

The records were in the custody of the CTO and its predecessor bodies until they were deposited on loan with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in December 1997.

Related Material

Relevant publications are available in ICS Library.