Mobile comms: Are the Americans beating us at our own game?

Wouldn't be the first time...
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor

Wouldn't be the first time...

To be at the CTIA Wireless IT and Internet 2002 show in Las Vegas this week was to witness a fair amount of US triumphalism - or at least anti-European triumphalism. Is that really fair? The story here is that after years of playing not just second but third fiddle to Europe and the Far East when it comes to mobile communications, there are now plenty of people in the US - technology providers, cellular network operators and countless others alongside them - who are pretty sure North America has overhauled any lead Europe attained during the 1990s based on the GSM standard. While not themselves quite living the mobile good life of South Korea or Japan, Americans are quick to point out that us Europeans have 'messed up big time' with the move to third-generation networks and handsets. The biggest, most embarrassing blunder has been the auction process several countries went through to allocate spectrum licences, lumbering major operators with billions of euros of debt. At the time, only a few enlightened souls protested against this approach. MIT guru Nicholas Negroponte was one of them, as was silicon.com columnist Sir Peter Cochrane on this side of the Atlantic. Today, that the auctions were a mistake is barely an argument. Now, the Americans know a thing or two about botched auctions. The fall out from the PCS spectrum auction in the mid to late 1990s as well as earlier, almost farcical licence-awarding can still be felt today. But the Americans have a point. And on the technology side, Qualcomm, the San Diego company behind the CDMA technology the world's next-generation networks will be built on, seems to sitting pretty as countries adopting its favoured CDMA2000 flavour move on, while European W-CDMA backers splutter and spurt. There are now even those saying Europe's operators may yet adopt CDMA2000 as an interim technology on the way to the designated W-CDMA 3G, though Qualcomm and people such as the CDMA Development Group will say that's unlikely. But still, there is triumphalism aplenty. However, the success of GSM and the last decade should not be underestimated. This is about more than that limited medium SMS. While the US is getting decent mobile technology platforms - even the phones aren't bricks anymore - the content offerings are not as developed as in Europe or Asia. People still look to Europe, in particular Scandinavia, for innovation. Also, as John Strand from Denmark's Strand Consulting stridently pointed out in one CTIA session, US operators just don't get how to market services and share customers with developers, games publishers, retailers, whoever. It's looking increasingly like Europe has the more sophisticated users and operators but the US has a more workable path to what is basically 3G. There's no reason for smugness on either side. Next time: why Japan and Korea ain't all that either. For related news, see:
Qualcomm CEO: 3G can still answer mass
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