Mobile operators clash over post-war technology

2 Apr 2003

Despite the likelihood of a protracted period of bloodshed for US and British forces in Iraq, mobile operators are already beginning to face each other down over which technology will be adopted post war in the middle eastern country.

The GSM community in the US has reacted angrily to a letter written by Californian Congressman Darrell Issa to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the US Agency for International Development, calling on them not to support a GSM-based phone system in the country.

Issa says the resulting business will go to French and German companies and not American. In the letter he said: “because of ill-considered planning the US government will soon hand over US taxpayer dollars to French, German and other European cell phone equipment companies.”

Congressman Issa instead wants the US army to use the American developed CDMA (code-division multiple access – a technology that uses spread-spectrum techniques) because he claims it is “widely recognised as technically superior”.

Issa represents the 49th District of California where CDMA giant Qualcomm is based – the company also contributed to Issa’s last political campaign in 2002.

Issa went on to claim that hundreds of thousands of American jobs depend on the success of US-developed wireless technology such as CDMA.

GSM was originally developed by Scandinavian and Dutch (rather than French) operators as a new digital cellular standard to allow for roaming within Europe and to cope with the increased demand for the service there.

As a result of the collaboration Europe sped ahead in promoting wireless technology among its population. In the US, on the other hand, a messy patchwork of rival standards – including GSM has made interoperability and roaming difficult there. It is for this reason that the virtual saturation of Europe with mobile phones has not yet happened in the US.

CEO of the GSM Association Rob Conway has said: “Congressman Issa’s intervention that GSM is an ‘outdated French standard’ is: “as ill-timed as it is misinformed. At the moment our first priority must be to offer our support and sympathies to the people putting their lives on the line to liberate Iraq.”

Conway added: “The right time to debate the technology will be when the real conflict is over.”

Many in the industry have been sharply critical of the congressman’s remarks which they believe try to characterise GSM as French rather than the technology which has greatest penetration worldwide.

As to the relative superiority of GSM versus CDMA research analysts Ovum say that both have their adherents: “CDMA has a larger talk range, requiring a smaller number of cell sites to cover the same area as a GSM system and subjective customer surveys (in the US) have often found CDMA to offer higher voice quality. On the other hand GSM offers longer talk time and ‘standby time’ on its devices and of course allows for extensive international roaming,” according to Ovum.

Critically Ovum also points out that GSM is the dominant technology in Iraq and the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Israel, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It says: “Building a GSM network in Iraq is a better solution for future roaming capability and device interoperability, very important in integrating Iraq economically into the region.”

It’s understood the US Department of Defence has yet to publish a reply to Congressman Issa’s letter.

By Suzanne Byrne