OXFORD, United Kingdom-For a while it looked as if the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU’s) original vision of a single global standard for third-generation mobile networks could be possible. Everyone was talking about harmonization, about submitting common proposals to the ITU’s radio transmission technology selection process for its IMT-2000 “family of systems” concept for 3G.
Even in the United States, special committees were convened to investigate the possibility of harmonization between competing proposals for the radio air interface. Japan continued its valiant efforts to broker common ground between W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) proposals from Europe and Wideband cdmaOne proposals from the United States. The IS-136 camp agreed on a joint way forward with the GSM community.
Only the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) seemed somewhat aloof from the newly fashionable emphasis on harmonization, already having crafted a compromise W-CDMA/TD-CDMA solution for its Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) proposal that promised to bring together Europe and Japan.
“Maybe I was naive,” said Perry La Forge, executive director of the CDMA Development Group. “But I really saw the opportunity to create a global standard.”
La Forge’s ambitions were defeated by the deep-seated hostility between L.M. Ericsson and Qualcomm Inc., dating way back to the TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access)/CDMA battles over second-generation digital cellular standards in North America.
The very fact that the IS-95 cdmaOne group was pushing for a harmonized standard was greeted with deep suspicion by the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) and UMTS communities, in particular by the alliance of GSM operators in North America. It was certainly an unusual stance, running counter to the U.S. philosophy of technology-neutral licensing and letting the market decide.
“Unfortunately, a few North American operators appear concerned that harmonization will give North American CDMA operators a competitive advantage and have attempted to undermine harmonization efforts,” said La Forge.
Competitive advantage is at the heart of the issue. Qualcomm is arguing that it is being shut out of Europe by the UMTS proposals, which it claims have failed to design out Qualcomm’s intellectual property rights (IPRs). The UMTS community is ignoring pleas to alter the chip rate in its proposal to ease compatibility with existing cdmaOne networks.
But it is Qualcomm’s reaction to the IPR issue that has outraged Europe and polarized the 3G issues. Qualcomm believes it has essential IPR for W-CDMA, and it intends to license these patents on reasonable terms and conditions free from unfair discrimination for a single converged IMT-2000 standard, or, if not achieved, only for cdma2000 (Wideband cdmaOne). Qualcomm has no intention of generally licensing its essential patent portfolio for any IMT-2000 standard (such as W-CDMA) that is purposefully made incompatible with cdmaOne.
That is pure blackmail, says the UMTS camp.
“They wouldn’t say that if they really knew the situation,” said La Forge. “It’s an attempt to focus on the issue of why we can’t get cooperation.”
Qualcomm is attempting to portray the situation as a trade dispute, arguing to the U.S. government that the European penchant for licensing specific technologies is locking Qualcomm out of the European market. But as a member of ETSI, Qualcomm had the opportunity to contribute to the air-interface standards-setting process, and all ETSI members have an obligation to grant fair and non-discrimatory access to their IPRs.
“Qualcomm is essentially accusing ETSI of blocking [Qualcomm’s] ability to trade on their IPRs,” said Alan Hadden, program manager of the UMTS Forum. “There is a lot of posturing amongst manufacturers and considerable confusion between capabilities and requirements.”
“The light should not shine brightly on Qualcomm, but on other individuals,” said La Forge. “It’s fundamental to their strategy to try to screw the other guys. Ultimately everything could get scrapped and it will all end up in litigation.”
The ultimate stage has not yet been reached. More than a dozen proposals have been submitted to the ITU which now starts its evaluation and selection process. Maybe, just maybe, the concept of harmonization could re-emerge during this process through the ITU’s well-honed tactic of achieving consensus through exhaustion.