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Third-Generation Wireless Standard A Tricky Issue

Telecommunications hawks will have their eyes on Brazil this week as the International Telecommunications Union kicks off a long-awaited meeting to decide on a single standard for wireless systems that could be used all over the globe.

The ITU, a United Nations-sponsored organization charged with helping countries integrate their telecommunications systems, began it's 11-day meeting Monday in Fortaleza, Brazil. According to reports, the meeting has attracted an unusual amount of attention from representatives of several governments as well as industry executives, who are hoping to influence the organization's ultimate decision.

The ITU has a self-imposed deadline by the end of the month to come up with its decision. The outcome could be crucial for San Diego-based Qualcomm and its competitors, who are battling over future standards for so-called Third Generation (3G) wireless networks.

There are several issues involved. First is whether the ITU will sign off on code division multiple access (CDMA), the wireless standard developed by Qualcomm, or choose a competing standard. CDMA, with its higher capacity, seems to be the favored choice and has even been endorsed by Qualcomm's top European rivals.

But it is not that simple. Although CDMA has won over many of its detractors, there are different versions of the standard available for use, and some of those versions would not be compatible with CDMA networks built in the United States by carriers such as Sprint PCS, AirTouch and GTE. European manufacturers, most notably Qualcomm rival Ericsson, have been pushing regulators to adopt its own version of CDMA that would put Qualcomm's existing products at a competitive disadvantage and force U.S. carriers to upgrade their entire networks in order to carry the signals.

Needless to say, the United States has not been pleased. A bipartisan group of 14 U.S. senators sent a letter to President Clinton last week encouraging the administration to "increases its efforts to ensure an open, competitive wireless market place." Those signing the letter included Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C. and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

The main subject of the ITU meetings will be convergence, or the joining together of different standards proposed by different firms. Qualcomm will have several representatives on site, according to a company spokeswoman, as well other manufacturers. Executives for service carriers also will be paying close attention.

"The key players in this debate are now all rallying around the principle that consumers and competition, not government bodies, are the best arbiters of market preference," said Frank Urbany, vice president of BellSouth's international operations, in a statement. "In its upcoming meeting, we believe the ITU will give careful consideration to the depth of support that has been expressed for multiple 3G standards by all corners of the private sector and will adopt a family of standards."

One thing that all sides could agree on, however, is that the ITU should make a decision now rather than put it off. But some say the organization may do just that in order to spur the different sides to come to an agreement on their own about converging the different standards.

"There is progress being made in the community," Jim Tackesh, director of advanced programs for U.S.-based CDMA Development Group, said in an interview with CNET, an online news service. "The ITU wants to accommodate that."

The ITU has another meeting scheduled for June in Bejing. A vote on technical standards could be put off until that time.

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