Monday, April 07, 2003

I've been doing some reading on the flap about which mobile phone standard to deploy in post-war Iraq, something I joked about earlier. Apparently it all began with U.S. Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican who represents San Diego, headquarters of Qualcomm, a leading specialist in CDMA, the mobile phone standard used throughout the United States. (If you're wondering about the Arab-sounding name, Issa is in fact an Arab-American whose grandfather emigrated from Lebanon in 1914.) Here is the full text of the letter. Apparently Issa had gotten wind of a Pentagon plan to use the GSM technology used all over Europe (not to mention much of the world outside the U.S., including the Middle East) in Iraq. Issa learned (from his friends at Qualcomm, no doubt?) that not only was GSM developed in Europe (shock!) but that the letters stand for Groupe Speciale Mobile -- French no less! Issa objects that if this "European-based wireless technology" is used, "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." Besides, he says, CDMA is "widely recognized as technically superior to European GSM technology."

Huh? I don't know much, but I know that U.S. mobile (sorry, "cell phone") development lags years behind Europe -- and that this guy's completely full of shit. GSM is used everywhere that I'm aware of except the U.S.; Issa's request is the equivilant of demanding that every PC user in Iraq to switch immediately to Macs. Also, GSM no longer stands for "Groupe Speciale Mobile" but the rather more Anglophonic "Global System for Mobilecommunications." But I guess he figured a little French-baiting wouldn't hurt his case.

Issa does make one minor good point in his letter, which is that CDMA phones "include an integrated global positioning system (GPS) feature that allows the precision location of callers in times of emergency." Presumably for aid workers who might get kidnapped. (This is only a good point if it's a valid point; not being an expert on mobile phone standards myself, I certainly wouldn't cite Rep. Issa as an authority on the subejct.)

The GSM Association, an industry trade group presumably representing GSM operators, has fired back, pointing out that every other Arab country uses GSM, and if you want roaming to work in the Middle East, you'd best stick to one standard -- a point that doesn't really hold up if the U.S. really plans to reshape the entire region.

For more, a blog called "Open Politics" has an informed post on this subject called, appropriately, "Say no to 'freedom phones'", with a better collection of links.


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