Open letter to Congressman Issa

by Guy Kewney | posted on 28 March 2003

Dear Congressman; I hope you had a good night's sleep, and have had a chance to be briefed on the state of world-wide communications. I'm particularly anxious that you discover the correct status of several mobile phone technologies which you seem to have been badly misinformed about when you wrote to Donald Rumsfeld.

<1/> Darrell_Issa

Guy Kewney

First the GSM phone system is not French. It was designed primarily international standards bodies, including ETSI, and academic institutions.

It isn't my brief to advise you on the good sense of declaring economic war against a Nato ally any more than I'm required to advise President Chirac about his personal or business morals. But you should be aware that the bulk of GSM infrastructure comes from companies like Motorola, which is an American company; and others like Nokia and Ericsson, which have substantial investments in America, where Americans depend on them for employment.

Next, you told Secretary Rumsfeld: "U.S. developed CDMA (code-division multiple access) cell phone technology is widely recognized as technically superior to European GSM technology and is deployed in 50 nations worldwide."

You may well be right about the "technical superiority" of CDMA vs TDMA - in much the same way as some will still say that Betamax is technically better than VHS. It's irrelevant in the same way that both are now history, and the world has moved on to DVD; and the phone systems are about to migrate to third-generation. But your advisers seem to have omitted to tell you that much of the American phone system is, already, GSM. It is called PCS, of course, for Personal Communications System; but it's GSM technology. It's the fastest growing US phone network because it provides not just voice, but mobile data capabilities.

The reason PCS is being deployed widely in the US, is because - contrary to your information - CDMA is obsolete in the market. It can't compete with GSM technology on two counts ... first, because it has not been developed to carry 2.5g services, and second, because it only works in North America, Japan, and one or two other pockets.

GSM is not a "European" standard; it's a global standard. If you want to understand why the huge Iridium satellite network was such a spectacular business failure, it was because the American founders of Iridium thought there was a need for a global phone standard, and didn't realise just how global GSM actually was.

Perhaps you don't travel overseas as often as some Europeans; so let me tell you a short story of the time my wife and I were flying around the world for our anniversary, six years ago. We flew from London to LA, where our GSM phones didn't work. From LA, we flew to Fiji, where I was able to pull my "European" phone out of my pocket and call on to friends in New Zealand to say we'd been delayed (American passengers on board were dumbstruck to find I had a "Fiji-standard" phone). When we arrived in New Zealand, I used my phone everywhere on the mainland and several islands around it. We flew on to Hong Kong, where my phone continued to function. It worked in Singapore. Had we gone to Australia, it would have worked without a hiccup, both sending and receiving calls. It would have worked anywhere in India, or Russia, or Africa where there is a mobile phone network, and most of South America, too.

I was very puzzled by your reference to GPS, global positioning system, technology. You told Secretary Rumsfeld: "In addition, 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. European GSM cell phones do not have integrated GPS."

Nobody I know in the phone business can suggest a way in which CDMA phones can generate GPS grid data.

However, there is legislation - search under "e911" or "extended 911 emergency calls" - which mandates that any cellular phone sold in the US should be capable of reporting where the phone is when an emergency 911 call is made. This is interesting legislation, but it isn't part of CDMA. All American phones, whether PCS or CDMA - or WCDMA, which is something else! - will have to comply with this requirement. In most cases, this involves building a GPS receiver into the phone. It isn't part of either the CDMA or the PCS spec.

What it is, however, is costly. If your information is correct, the mobile phone network to be set up in Iraq would be "privatised" once the immediate aftermath of war is over. I would suggest that you don't buy stock in the (no doubt, American) company which wins the contract to provide this service, because if it is mandatory for these phones to have GPS circuitry, then incredibly few native Iraqi citizens will be able to afford them.

Finally, I notice you said: "Hundreds of thousands of American jobs depend on the success of U.S.-developed wireless technologies like CDMA."

I'm very curious as to what these other wireless technologies "like CDMA" might be. As far as I can tell, the future of mobile communications is not going to involve CDMA in any substantial numbers, any more than the future of landline communications is going to be based on Strowger technology.

It is expected that "third generation" mobile phone systems will dominate the markets world-wide in five years' time. There is some debate as to what the technology under this will be, indeed! - but the debate is over which 3G technology will triumph, or whether wireless LAN (WiFi) systems will dominate in urban areas instead. Nobody, anywhere - except yourself, Congressman - expects CDMA to play a significant part in the future of mobile phone systems.

Finally, I think you might usefully take a trip to Taiwan. There, you will discover that the "hundreds of thousands" of jobs that will depend on future technology in wireless, will not be American jobs. Like the jobs in personal computers, and the jobs in consumer electronics, they will all be in China, under the control of Taiwanese managers.

Congressman, America has allies and business partners all around the world. You can't keep these allies by military might, and you can't maintain business relationships by warfare.

However, you can alienate these allies and partners by making it seem that America indulges in wars of liberation mostly in order to promote the business interests of American businesses, to the detriment of the rest of the world.

Measured by that standard, your letter to Secretary Rumsfeld has been a startling success.

More: as a way of giving the rest of the world the impression that American Congressmen are venal, ignorant and parochial, your campaign is already a triumph.

And finally, if you had hoped to persuade the Islamic world that the move to "liberate" Iraq was a mere sham and that the main purpose was to provide a corpse for the vultures to squabble over, then you can probably retire in satisfaction. Your work there is done.