Standards row is misplaced battle

Rupert Goodwins: The fighting's far from over, so why are people blustering about cellphone standards in the reconstruction to come?

It is hard to think of the future of Iraq when the present is so harrowing. The war may be cowboys versus gangsters, imperialism versus indigenous people, Christianity versus Islam, democracy versus tyranny, freedom versus oppression. It'll be the job of history to put things in context, and we must hope for a world where history is allowed to tell the truth. For now, the proper wish is for a quick ending.

So writing about telecommunications standards in post-war Iraq seems almost criminally trivial. It would be the thought furthest from my mind were it not for United States Congressman Darrell Issa, who a couple of weeks ago circulated a lobbying letter to Congress entitled "Parlez-vous français?". In it, the charming politician pointed out that GSM stood for Groupe Systeme Mobile, and thus was obviously developed by the French (it wasn't, as he later corrected). In the rebuilding of Iraq, he continued, it was important that such nastiness be avoided and the contracts for the mobile phone system be awarded to CDMA, the American digital phone standard.

It is easy to attack this sort of posturing on grounds of taste, sanity and special interests, so let's get the cheap shots in first. It was excruciatingly tasteless to bluster on about cellphones with thousands dying and thousands yet to die. The sanity of any country where French fries are renamed Freedom Fries is questionable (although our own dear royal family renamed themselves the House of Windsor in the First World War, as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was thought to be a bit, well, Germanic. I would not hold them up as icons of sanity). As for special interests: Congressman Issa is the recipient of thousands of dollars of campaign funding from Qualcomm, the company that in effect owns the CDMA standard. But even so, is there some basis of fact in his claim?

As you'd expect from a standard around ten years younger, CDMA has some technological advantages over GSM. You can cram more calls into the same chunk of spectrum, it's more resistant to noise and it handles congestion better. If there were no mobile phones on the planet and there was a competition on purely technical merit, CDMA would most likely win. But there are, there isn't, and it won't.

Take a marketing perspective. CDMA has around 12 percent of the global market, GSM nearly 70. This has certain implications: there are many more models of GSM phone than there are CDMA, and the best features appear on GSM first (and sometimes stay there). Every country in Europe and the Middle East is GSM, and roaming between operators and countries is a fact of life. Take a GSM phone to America, and you have a good chance of it working. Try doing it in reverse with CDMA.

It's analogous to the world of PCs in the early 90s. The IBM PC standard was no beauty -- there were plenty of alternatives that worked better and did more with less, at least as far as the hardware and operating system went. But it was open -- there were lots of manufacturers and software companies on the scene, prices were low and availability was high. A vigorous market developed, and soon it didn't matter how much better the alternatives were -- they'd be stuck in niches. For what people wanted computers to do, the PC had the best answer. It would be unthinkable for a country to mandate that only Macintoshes be allowed. The analogy is close: Apple, like Qualcomm, kept a tight grasp on their technology and only let others use it with ill-concealed bad grace, if at all.

If the main purpose of the reconstruction of Iraq is to give the country a firm footing in reality and to equip it for life among the modern nations, then the purpose of its mobile phone network must be to let as many people communicate as cheaply as possible and with as few restrictions and as many benefits as possible. This must include roaming with its neighbours, exposure to the benefits of the best and liveliest market in both infrastructure and handsets, and the chance for indigenous skills to develop with the best chance of being useful in the world outside. On all these fronts, you can't knock GSM.

That none of these factors informed Congressman Issa's stance is indicative that our old European suspicions concerning America's intentions may be worth holding onto for a little longer. Once the war is over and we've counted all the weapons of mass destruction, the test of what happens next is entirely "does it benefit the Iraqis?". I'm sure that everybody on either side of the Atlantic looks forward to the day when the biggest concern of a Baghdad schoolkid is which mobile phone to get for their birthday. That, Mr Issa, is the only acceptable standard for mobile communications in the rebuilt Iraq.