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Iraq's mobile network – Qualcomm to follow the tanks?

Congress rep denounces 'French' GSM

And in a flash, the war on terror started to morph into the war for CDMA. North Korea, watch out - there's a jumping-off point right next door. US wireless company Qualcomm has often been described as the civilian wing of the military-industrial complex, so perhaps the only thing that should surprise us is how speedily its arrival in the wake of the tanks in Iraq occurred.

The new Iraq will need (among other things) a mobile phone network, GSM phone networks are supplied by ungrateful and despicable Europeans*, so any attempt by the DoD and USAID to install anything other than a US-designed CDMA system would be, would be... But we'll let the Congressman tell you all about it later.

Spread-spectrum radio began life as a military technology; Qualcomm grew fat on Pentagon pork defense contracts in the late Reagan years as it sought to tame CDMA for civilian use. Which it eventually did, after many delays, and with some admirable panache. Only CDMA arrived, when it eventually did arrive - three years after co-founder Dr Jacobs promised - too late to make an impact on the cellphone industry as it was. The world had multilaterally decided on an older time-division digital technology several years previously.

The result is that the world has a single standard, and enjoys economies of scale and very, very cool gadgets. The USA on the other hand decided to allow four incompatible standards to battle it out, thus blocking innovation from overseas, and allowing cellphone carriers to play atrocious bait and switch games with cellphone subscribers here. Er, that's us.

But back to the Gulf.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R., San Diego) yesterday issued a rallying cry for the new, reconstructed Iraq to embrace CDMA instead of GSM. Issa is urging Congress reps to sign a round-robin letter to Donald Rumsfeld, denouncing GSM ("French" and outdated) and urging the cause of the Q stuff instead. Qualcomm, we note chipped in $4,500 for Issa's 2002 campaign, but then so did lots of other outfits. We hope the Iraqis like their Centrinos, too.

Says Issa: "We have learned that planners at the Department of Defense and USAID are currently envisioning using Federal appropriations to deploy a European-based wireless technology known as GSM ('Groupe Speciale Mobile'- this standard was developed by the French) for this new Iraqi cell phone system."

This is fighting talk, as the mere mention of the word "entree" is enough to send a patriotic USAian into paroxysms of rage, right now. It's also quite incorrect, and ETSI anoraks will tell you all about Groupe Speciale Mobile, should you let them. WIth almost a billion users, in over 150 countries, GSM is the world's cellphone standard. But let Mr Issa continue:

"If European [sic] GSM technology is deployed in Iraq, much of the equipment used to build the cell phone system will be manufactured in France by Alcatel, in Germany by Siemens, and elsewhere in western and northern Europe."

He seems a little vague here about "Northern Europe" and is very coy about naming the Nordic telephony pioneers explicitly: Sweden and Finland. But he continues, a little shakily:

"Therefore, if our understanding of this situation is correct, because of ill-considered planning, the U.S. government will soon hand U.S. taxpayer dollars over to French, German, and other European cell phone equipment companies to build the new Iraqi cell phone system."

"This is not acceptable" he cries.

Er well, no. American manufacturers such as Lucent and Motorola are very keen to export GSM technology into foreign markets indeed. And the European competitors may well be Siemens, but are just as likely to be LM Ericsson and Nokia, from Sweden and Finland respectively. But they're not quite on the wrong side. Yet?

Aside from Issa's objections to the possibility of the French and Germans getting contracts, there is, he says, a security issue at stake here:

"... we understand that CDMA cell phones include an integrated global positioning system (GPS) feature that allows the precision location of callers in times of emergency. [do we detect the teensiest of a briefing here?] European GSM cell phones do not have integrated GPS. If US relief workers in Iraq are equipped with CDMA cell phones with GPS, they will be immediately locatable in case of terrorist attack or kidnapping. Finally, because US CDMA systems are compliant with the US Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, this system provides all necessary access for law enforcement in post-conflict Iraq."

Depending on who's doing the enforcing, of course. But yes, there do seem to be roaming advantages in the case of US security people commuting between the US and Iraq. We could observe that the European networks make a pretty good fist of figuring out where you are without GPS, and we might mention that there are other points about CDMA GPS. But we won't - not today, anyway.

Issa's punchline is quite unambiguous:

"If the U.S. government deploys US- developed CDMA in Iraq, then American companies will manufacture most of the necessary equipment here in the United States."

Er, wrong again. What bomb-shattered bits of Mesopotamia that may survive will be as intrigued by Lucent's 4G network as anything that "Europeans" have to offer. Issa's shaky pitch is founded on a shaky assumption: that the US national interest relies on one single patent hoarder, in his home constituency, and not the great wealth that the real US-based manufacturers could bring home.

You must question, once again, how a patent licensing company came to identify itself so closely with the national interest. Qualcomm's key patents were filed in 1989. Under the seventeen-year rule, the most important of these will expire in three years time.

Patient Mesopotamians may be wise to sit this one out, but we doubt anybody will ask them. ®

* Some years back The Register picked up the latest edition of what was then a very fat magazine bloated with lovely, lovely PC advertising, but which is now sadly slimmed. And boggled we were to read the amazing diatribe on poison European GSM technology, written by someone who, as far as we know, remains a senior executive of the rump of the publishing company. Had he been getting good brief from something beginning with Q?, we wondered. GSM was nothing like as good as the home-grown technology that was just around the corner. GSM was dangerous. GSM would stop pacemakers, hospitals would cease to function, planes would fall out of the sky... Wheelchairs would run haywire into the paths of uncoming trucks. Excellent stuff, and no, we're not making it up - he was. But at least you seem to get a more sedate class of black propaganda these days.

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