Will Europe fall in love with Qualcomm, now it owns Flarion 4G technology?
Or will it reject Flarion because it's Qualcomm?
Comment Qualcomm owns most of the patents involved in cellular telephony. It may be exaggerating to say that the ITU picked TDMA technology instead of CDMA technology for GSM simply because nobody liked Qualcomm... but the fact is, nobody did like Qualcomm, and still, today, particularly in Europe: "nobody likes Qualcomm."
But a lot of people actually like Flarion, and not just because it wasn't Qualcomm, but because it solves a big technical problem facing the European phone business.
Today, Qualcomm announced that it is acquiring Flarion, lock, stock and staff, including intellectual property, for $600m odd. Suddenly, Europe's 3G phone networks have a choice: both easier, and harder, than it was a month ago.
Their problem was how to move into the internet. The next generation of cellphones was expected to be WCDMA, also Qualcomm-owned... but politics accidentally sabotaged the technology, by picking the 2.1 GHz frequency spectrum for 3G phones.
That technology, at 450 MHz, works very well indeed. As every technologist involved in setting the WCDMA standards for Europe warned, at 2.1 GHz, this isn't true. It works; it just doesn't work at all well inside buildings, and the economics of WCDMA 3G are consequently looking dodgy.
The big obstacle facing WCDMA is VoIP. To carry that, profitably, end to end, you need far more packet-like carrier systems than WCDMA can offer. The cost per bit per user is what matters; Flarion technology has been guestimated to offer between 10X and 30X what technologies like IMS can provide, even if you ignore the latency problems.
What's the alternative? The accepted technology is IP Wireless, which is the orthodox way of moving into broadband wireless data. Now, with Flarion having done a sterling job of selling Flash-OFDM to those countries which rejected the standard, accepted technology, Qualcomm was staring at the loss of its future royalty markets.
Clearly it had to do something, and so it started a charm offensive. The trouble was, nobody in Europe would come to its parties. They really don't like Qualcomm!
The strange thing is that Qualcomm just doesn't understand this.
What Qualcomm does understand, is standards. And what Flarion needs, above all, is standards approval; and the Flash-OFDM technology is currently being pushed through the IEEE as a standard which the operators can accept.
It would be wrong, probably, to suggest that Qualcomm in any way controls the thinking of the IEEE; but the fact is that (as an insider put it today) "They have supported the IEEE in many ways..." and many Qualcomm technical guys and gals sit on IEEE committees, and can vote one way or the other. At a time when CDMA was battling Flash-OFDM, the vote might have gone the other way. Now, it may go the one way.
The result will be that Flash-OFDM will "play out" its process of becoming a standard, both in the ITU and in the IEEE, probably much faster than before.
And that means that all the people who have already re-cycled their 450- MHz phone bands into Flarion trials, will be strongly motivated to expand those trials to full-scale commercial wireless broadband. And those who still have to make their minds up - including France and the UK - will probably think far more enthusiastically about using 450 and 800 MHz bands for broadband wireless if it's a standard that the struggling mobile phone companies can support.
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