Qualcomm monoculture is ‘killing American wireless’

US & Canada wait, and wait and wait for Bluetooth

Letters There's a huge reality gap if you follow wireless on this continent. Proponents of the CDMA phone system used by the large American networks (and rejected by most of the rest of the world) spend much time boasting about the system's "technical superiority".

At the same time, the handsets and services here lag far behind those on offer even in developing countries. Yesterday's technology abounds: awful, antiquated phones are the norm. You just can't get the coolest toys here unless you opt for one of the GSM networks and when you do, as in California, you're effectively locking yourself into a local monopoly.

Now, apart from a lunatic fringe of right-wing publications and enthusiasts, everybody knows this awful truth. Amps and hertz don't matter as much to the ordinary consumer as much as better handsets and better services, and more choice.

A case in point: Bluetooth is a standard feature on many new GSM/GPRS phones but the first CDMA 1X phone has yet to be launched. We were astonished to learn, after speaking to representatives from Samsung and Kyocera which are launching interesting PalmOS-based smartphones that the industry is waiting on Bluetooth-capable chipsets from Qualcomm. What, just the one supplier?

The following explanation comes from an experienced wireless professional who prefers to remain anonymous.

"Phones here are years behind the rest of the world: have you tried buying a Bluetooth-enabled CDMA 1X phone? You can't. Because there isn't one."

In his analysis of Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly's decision to affirm the DoJ-Microsoft Settlement, Andrew Orlowski makes the point that American protectionism of companies such as Microsoft and Qualcomm ultimately results in the stifling of innovation and competition. He uses the example of the lack of CDMA Bluetooth phones.

Recently, I've been following a few discussion groups where the proponents of CDMA technogies preach the supposed technological superiority of CDMA 1X networks over GPRS networks in North America, and WCDMA elsewhere. They delve deep into specifications to support their arguments and justify the supposed benefits to consumers, and the eventual world-domination of CDMA. It's an interesting mix of technical trivia and heart-felt religious righteousness.

Having spent nine years in Europe, I found it faintly amusing that people would want to spend their time arguing about underlying network technologies, rather than about new services, or new ideas about how to make money from mobile data. You're more likely to be spending time showing off your latest handset, how you can take pictures with it, or what games you can play, to worry about the networks. Are Americans so offended by Asian and European superiority in Wireless, and eager to redress the balance, that they will grasp at any thread that hints of possible "Homeland" supremacy?

If so, arguing about network standards isn't the way to go about it. It was the lack of a common network technology that was largely responsible for turning North America into a wireless backwater in the first place.

So what relevance to this is a Bluetooth-enabled CMDA 1X phone? It seems common sentiment in North America that Bluetooth is a failure: it should have arrived years ago, is buggy, expensive, difficult to configure, etc. There seems to be a feeling that Bluetooth had it's chance, and now 802.11 - a technology where North America could be said to lead - will fill the void. That Bluetooth failed will be news to any European who has been using Bluetooth headsets, car kits, Bluetooth-enabled PDAs, or Bluetooth connections with their laptops, and who first hand understands how uniquely useful and versatile the technology is.

For two years I have been using Bluetooth-enabled GPRS phones and PDAs to access wireless data. My workplace has a variety of Bluetooth devices...GPRS phones, headsets, PDAs, CF Cards, PC Cards, SDIO Cards, USB adapters, access points, etc.. An average of two Bluetooth devices per employee, and climbing. Our business is not Bluetooth, it is mobile data. However, mobile data is where Bluetooth shines.

I recently went looking for a solution to demonstrate our product using a Toshiba e740 (WiFi) PDA and CDMA 1X. (The e740 can manage about an hour of browsing over 802.11b before the battery gives up...less than half what the same PDA with Bluetooth can manage. ) The local CDMA 1X provider offered only two 1X mobile phones, neither of which supported Bluetooth.

Ah well...a USB cable can be purchased for the Samsung N370 for $80, and a port expander with USB is available for the Toshiba. Alas, while you can physically connect the two devices, there are no USB drivers available for Pocket PC for the mobile phone. Nor does the Toshiba support a serial connection. No 1X for Toshiba PDA's then.

Well, maybe we could import a 1X Bluetooth phone. We do this all the time with GPRS... you just swap SIMs. You can sometimes do this with CDMA...if you talk nicely enough to your CDMA operator. It depends on the operator's policy, and how the customer service representative feels that day.

Alas, there are no 1X Bluetooth phones to be had anywhere in the world. Even searching the Bluetooth Qualified Products List (QPL) reveals only one candidate - The Samsung X7700. Samsung hasn't announced this phone yet, and there's no information available on it, where or when it will be launched. The lack of Bluetooth in North America mobile phones is not due to any problems with the technology, it's due to Qualcomm. (Fortunately, in the last month or two Qualcomm has apparently demonstrated in the lab a new chipset that supports 1X and Bluetooth...maybe in a year or so we might actually see a Bluetooth 1X phone on the market.)

Okay, how about an integrated 1X Pocket PC? The Audiovox Thera is available...but if you want to use the device as a phone you must use an earbud and microphone, and you get about 1 hour of talk-time. So Audiovox Thera isn't going to replace an employee's mobile phone, but (because of the lack of a SIM) you will still need to purchase a separate voice and data service for it. Nor can we use a display adapter with it and we like to give presentations directly from PDAs as the Thera has neither CF nor SDIO slots. A Sierra Wireless 1X card? Same issues as the Thera, but more bulky as you need a PC Card adapter (with it's own battery).

The Samsung N370 1X mobile can be connected to an HP/Compaq iPAQ PDA (of which we have many, with integrated Bluetooth, of course) so we decide to use that. Only, you need a different cable, for another $80. So, we have to spend $160 on cables to connect a 1X mobile phone to both a laptop, and a PDA that already has Bluetooth. We've recently been purchasing Bluetooth USB adapters for $60.

Clearly then, 1X data is not a "wireless". The need to use (multiple) cables makes it not even mobile. At best we could cal 1X data portable. Connecting cables makes a mockery of "always connected" technology. The supposed speed advantage of 1X over GPRS is irrelevant if you can't get the data out of the phone. Who uses 1X data, other than for WAP, I wonder? Not consumers, with the degree of difficulty and inconvenience involved. It certainly doesn't seem to be suitable for PDAs. The main application must be corporate users downloading e-mail to their laptops. No wonder limited devices such as those from RIM and Handspring - unsuccessful in Europe - have found a market in North America.

Compare this with the kind of use people are making of PDAs and GPRS mobile phones. I can get my e-mail, browse the web, download applications, and sync my data back to my office. All without taking my phone out of my pocket. Now that the GPRS operators in North America have tri-band phones with Bluetooth (e.g., Nokia 6310i, Sony Ericsson T39m/T68i, etc.), and with devices such as HP's iPAQ 3870/3970, Palm's Tungsten T, North Americans can finally begin to experience Bluetooth for themselves. They won't be doing it over CDMA 1X, however.

Consumers will not make their choice of network operator based on the underlying network technology. Their choices are influenced heavily by the the appeal, popularity and price of handsets and services. CMDA continues to lag in these areas, and there are no signs of the situation improving. The top handset manufacturers prioritise their development efforts for the volume GSM market and it's evolution to WCDMA. New features are introduced on these handsets first. When North American consumers finally begin to adopt mobile phones and data services similar to their European counterparts, what phones will they choose?

[name and address supplied]

The start-up our correspondent works for ought to be in the first wave of new entrepreneurs who form the next wave of investment, profits and wealth here.

Instead, we have a monoculture that seems determined to keep American consumers behind the curve.

How do we fix this? Readers are invited to comment. ®

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