We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

How the Chinese screwed up their 3G mobile phone networks

In April, a Chinese government minister proudly announced that there are now 152m people using 3G mobile phone services in China.

An ongoing story in the Apple world is that the world’s largest mobile phone company, China Mobile (which has about 650 million customers and 70% of the mainland Chinese market), does not offer the iPhone to its customers. There has been much speculation as to when Apple and China Mobile will “do a deal” in order to offer the iPhone to its customers, many stories written by financial analysts (many working for large equities houses) expressing their puzzlement about the lack of such a deal and pressuring the two companies to get on with it. There has been much discussion as to what the business reasons for the lack of such a deal might be – possibly the two companies are at odds about shares of revenues when they sell Apps and music and movies to iPhones over their networks. Such arguments have long characterised arguments between handset vendors and mobile networks elsewhere in the world, although generally Apple has won the argument outside China.

This seems puzzling, however. There is a great deal of money to be made, right now, and this money is simply not being made by anyone at the moment. It requires parties to be very stupid indeed to concede that two parties will have 100% of nothing, rather than undecided shares of many billions of dollars, which is apparently happening here. Neither Apple nor China Mobile are stupid.

This isn’t it. There is more going on here. Or possibly less.

Last week, another piece of information came out of China. The real number of 3G users in China was in fact only half this – between 75 million and 80 million. China Mobile had “mistakenly” provided the whole number of devices sold using its TD-SCDMA technology rather than the number using 3G data services. As well as using this technology for 3G data services, China Mobile also uses it for cordless (but fixed) telephone services. The vast bulk of devices sold had been very simple essentially fixed telephones that could just be used for simple voice and text services.

So how many 3G customers does China Mobile have? Well, there are two other mobile networks in China. China Unicom operates a 3G network using W-CDMA (people who refer to “UMTS” or “HS(D)PA” are generally also talking about this technology, although the terms actually mean slightly different things), the technology used exclusively in Europe, by AT&T and T-Mobile in the US, by NTT in Japan, and by the majority of carriers elsewhere in the world. China Telecom operates a 3G network using the CDMA2000 (often referred to simply as “CDMA” in the US), used by Verizon and Sprint in the US, KDDI in Japan, and by many carriers elsewhere in the world, although far fewer than the number that use W-CDMA. China Unicom apparently had 51 million 3G customers in April. China Telecom claimed 45.56 million.

China Telecom’s number is easier to exaggerate than is China Unicom’s number, as the CDMA2000 technology was developed as a gradual evolution of the (2G) CDMAOne technology, and where you draw the line between “2G” and “3G” is somewhat arbitrary for this technology. W-CDMA was an all new air interface compared to its 2G predecessor, so (if you are being at least reasonably honest, which is never guaranteed in China) it is harder to fudge the numbers than it is for CDMA2000. Assuming that the 51 million number for China Unicom is relatively sound, and bearing in mind that China Telecom has around half the overall market share of China Unicom, a fair estimate might be that China Telecom really has around 25 million 3G customers, assuming that “3G” means people achieving similar data speeds to what is being achieved on China Unicom’s network. (China Telecom clearly do have a significant number of 3G customers. 3G devices bearing their brand were readily available and being sold aggressively in the electronics markets of Beijing when I visited last November, as were those of China Unicom. China Mobile, much less so). So that would mean that the two smaller carriers, China Unicom and China Telecom, have around 75 million 3G customers in all. Which would suggest that China Mobile, the largest mobile phone operator in the world, has, as a first order estimate, none.

This might help explain why they are unable to offer the iPhone.

So, it appears that the largest Mobile carrier in the world, in a country perceived as being rapidly advancing technologically, may have no 3G customers. Why is this?

To answer this question, we need to go back around 20 years. In the early 1990s, the European Union (and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute or ETSI) decided that a single technological standard should be mandated for digital (ie 2G) mobile phones in Europe, to avoid the national fragmentation that had existed for analogue (1G) services in Europe. This had two features that turned out to be particularly useful. Firstly the phone number and account was separated from the phone handset, instead being associated with a SIM (essentially a smartcard). Secondly, easy international roaming was mandated, and a phone used in one country using the standard would still work when taken to another country using the standard. (In my mind, certain aspects of how resultant choice of networks and billing were handled were botched, and this is a large cause of why international roaming charges remain so horrendous today, but that is a different story). The actual technology of GSM was in certain ways quite primitive, but the resulting system worked very well, at least for voice calls.

In any event, the resultant GSM standard was adopted in Europe by mandate, gaining critical mass. Because GSM hardware was readily available and the standard was well defined, the GSM standard became the most widely used in most of the rest of the world, other than in the Americas, Japan, and Korea. Economies of scale have meant that other standards have gradually lost ground to it and its successors ever since.

“The rest of the world” included China. Two Chinese mobile networks were set up, both of which used GSM, and both of which belonged to the Chinese government. China Mobile was the favoured company, which became dominant, and China Unicom was the secondary competitor.

However, the (principally European) companies that had invented GSM had a heavy patent portfolio, and demanded significant royalties be paid for use of GSM and GSM related technologies. China resented this. This was the situation in around 1995.

In the second half of the 1990s, something called the IMT-2000 process took place within the International Telecommunications Union. This was an attempt to come up with a single international standard for third generation mobile phones. A system called W-CDMA, that had initially been invented by NTT of Japan, but which was championed by Nokia and Ericsson was adopted by the European ETSI (ahead of an alternative standard invented by Siemens) as the European standard that they put forward to be the international standard. Qualcomm of the US put forward an alternative standard that was an evolution of their existing (2G) CDMAOne standard, and this eventually became CDMA2000. No agreement could be reached between all these parties, which is why there are two common 3G standards in the world today, the aforementioned W-CDMA and CDMA2000.

China, as I said, resented the royalty payments that were being demanded by either of these parties, and decided that they would not adopt either of these standards, but instead would develop an indigenous Chinese standard as an alternative. In around 1999 and 2000, Chinese bodies started issuing press releases stating that China would be adopting neither W-CDMA or CDMA2000, and that an indigenous Chinese standard called TD-SCDMA would be used for 3G mobile phones in China.

China did not have the technological skill to develop a 3G mobile phone standard in 2000. So where did they get the idea that they could and would develop their own? Go to the Wikipedia page for TD-SCDMA, and you find this interesting paragraph

TD-SCDMA was developed in the People’s Republic of China by the Chinese Academy of Telecommunications Technology (CATT), Datang Telecom, and Siemens AG in an attempt to avoid dependence on Western technology. This is likely primarily for practical reasons, since other 3G formats require the payment of patent fees to a large number of Western patent holders.

The most interesting words in this paragraph are Siemens AG. What appears to have happened is that having lost the battle to provide the technology for the European standard, Siemens of Germany then attempted to sell it to the Chinese, on the basis that they would not have to pay the royalties that they would have to pay if they adopted the winning standard. The Chinese apparently were delighted by this suggestion, and started almost immediately issuing press releases about how they were developing their own standard.

People who remember the telecommunications industry of a little over a decade ago will also remember that the road to 3G in Europe using the adopted W-CDMA standard was a fairly bumpy one. Huge amounts of money was spent by operators on 3G licences, and then the tech bubble collapsed, the technology turned out to not work very well, and in the mid 2000s we were still using 2G mobile phones happily enough. (Seriously, in 2005 you were probably using a Motorola RAZR. Think how primitive that is compared to what you have now). It was only with the spread of 3G broadband dongles and the iPhone that 3G really got going and the technology really started working well.

This was with all the capital and expertise of European and American firms. In China, engineers with many fewer resources (including German resources, but still fewer) were working with a technology that had not been adopted in Europe and Japan due to being an inferior technology in the first place. The Chinese had announced to the whole world that they were developing their own 3G technology rather than use foreign technology. There were only two things wrong with this. The technology had in fact been invented by the Germans. Also, it didn’t work.

When I tell this story to Western expatriates in China, they start laughing and making gestures that consist of (amongst other things) pointing at their faces. Losing face is very, very bad in Chinese culture. We had a great many Chinese politicians and bureaucrats, engineers, telecoms executives with a lot of face caught up in this. The sensible thing in about 2006 would have been to have dropped the whole idea of the supposedly indigenous Chinese 3G standard, but the idea of face would not allow this.

However, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were coming up. China was trying to sell itself as a modern and advanced country. The Chinese were horrified by the idea that vast numbers of the international elite would come to Beijing for the Olympics, discover that there were no 3G networks, and conclude that China was a poor, backwards place, and the Chinese elite are even more frightened of this than they are of losing face of mobile phone standards, because deep down they are frightened that it might actually be true. (The whole point of the 2008 Olympics was to demonstrate that it was not).

So, it was decided that China *must* have 3G networks in time for the 2008 Olympics. But face must not be lost. So China Mobile, the favoured and dominant (state owned) mobile carrier was ordered to build a TD-SCDMA network at once, whether or not it worked. As the most powerful operator, it should use the Chinese indigenous standard.

As it was necessary that sophisticated foreigners who came for the 2008 Olympics should be able to have their phones roam to 3G networks, somebody else had to be operating a W-CDMA network by the time of the 2008 Olympics. The obvious choice was that China Unicom, the second, less favoured, state owned mobile operator should build an internationally compatible W-CDMA network in time for the Olympics.

There was only one problem with this. China Unicom had a 3G network already.

Er, what?


As in many countries, in China, it had been seen as desirable for there to be competition between different phone companies. Fixed line operators were encouraged to get into mobile, and mobile operators were encouraged to get into fixed line. Competition in such things was heavily encouraged from about 1990-2005, but this has fallen by the wayside a bit in the years since, as mobile has simply become dominant).

The trouble with competition in fixed line is that the legacy monopoly carrier generally owns the copper wire from the exchange to the home, so a competitive local phone company must either lease that copper wire from the legacy carrier, or find some alternative way of getting a connection to the home. Various things have been tried: using cable television cables, electricity wires, water pipes, microwaves, or radio signals of various kinds. Qualcomm, the American company that had invented CDMAOne/CDMA2000, was quite successful at advertising its CDMAOne/CDMA2000 technology as a solution for companies that wanted to offer competitive fixed line services. (Wireless Local Loop, or WLL). The idea was that you would install a phone in your home that would connect wirelessly to a local exchange, and that you would only use this phone in and near your home. If you went away from your home, the phone would not work with other exchanges, and the phone could not handle handover from one exchange to another if you were on the move.

Of course, CDMAOne/CDMA2000 was in fact a full cellular mobile system that was perfectly capable of these things, but if it was purchased as a WLL solution they would be switched off. (They could, of course, be switched on at any time).

In order to compete with existing fixed line carriers, China Unicom had been given a licence to use some spectrum for Wireless Local Loop. They rolled out a network using Qualcomm’s CDMA2000 system, and as far as I can tell, they switched everything on. If you had a handset and went a long way from your home, your phone moved from network to network. Although China Unicom did not have a licence to build a 3G mobile network, they built one anyway. And the powers that be in China either failed to see this or were bribed not to.

But, 2008 Olympics. It was necessary to build a W-CDMA network in order to prevent those influential foreigners from coming to China and laughing at how backwards China was. (Actually, the foreigners had their phones switched off because roaming charges were too high, but that is a different – although not entirely unrelated – story). Also, China Mobile, the largest and politically best connected mobile phone company in the world, was pissed off enough already by the fact that they had been required to build a 3G mobile network using a standard that barely worked. If China Unicom was allowed (or required) to built a W-CDMA 3G network in addition to the CDMA2000 3G network that they already had, this would be dangerous from a competition perspective, as China Mobile could be overwhelmed by the superiority of the technology of their main competitor.

So, the Chinese government had to hobble China Unicom. Firstly there is no number portability in China to this day. In virtually every other country in the world, a customer may change mobile networks without changing their phone number. This is a huge deal. People are very reluctant to change their phone numbers. Churn rates (ie the percentage of people who change carriers per year) are much higher in markets where number portability exists.

Secondly, the Chinese government decided that more competition was in order. Fixed operators should compete with mobile operators to a greater extent than had been the case previously. The Chinese telecommunications business should be “restructured”. The (state owned, as always) purely fixed operator China Telecom should also operate mobile services. It would be a huge obstacle for this company to build a mobile network from scratch, but because China Unicom owned one more mobile network than it needed, Unicom would be required to sell off its CDMA2000 network to China Telecom. That way, there would be three operators, each with one 3G network, each using a different technical standard. China Mobile would have TD-SCDMA, China Unicom would have W-CDMA, and China Telecom would have CDMA2000. Each of China Mobile’s competitors would have a superior network to its own, but each would be competing with one another as well as China Mobile, and each would be hobbled in competition with China Mobile in various ways.

However, face needed still to be saved. Evidence that China’s indigenous TD-SCDMA technology was a success needed to exist. It seems that China Mobile (who were of course being encouraged to compete with fixed line operators) discovered that although TD-SCDMA was not especially useful for 3G mobile services, it was good enough for those Wireless Local Loop services that mobile carriers were being encouraged to provide. So whereas China Unicom had previously managed to provide 3G mobile services by claiming that they were really Wireless Local Loop (for which they had a licence), China Mobile has been able to provide Wireless Local Loop services with a barely adequate technology and claim that they are really 3G, because that is what the Chinese government wants them to claim. The hardware has been cheap and practically given away, and its (possible) adoption has given the China Mobile the ability to claim that their number of 3G customers is greater than it really is.

Except that they have just been found out. I wonder how that happened?

Perhaps we are at a moment in history when everyone, everywhere, is being found out. If so, I am scared.

Apple has not been willing to produce a version of the iPhone for China Mobile’s network. This is because they cannot make a version of the iPhone that works on that network well enough for Apple to be willing to put their name on it. It really is that simple.

To be fair, this will go away before too long. For 4G, China is going to use a variant of the LTE standard being used throughout the rest of the world. The TDD variant used in China is going to be used elsewhere as well, and the FDD variant that is presently being used elsewhere will likely be used in China as well. Handsets will likely handle both. There may be some insistence in China that they are still using a compatible indigenous standard, but they are smart enough to not repeat the same mess again. Everyone in the world looks set to adopt compatible standards this time. But oh boy, it has been painful to get to this point. (The number of different frequency bands that is likely to be used will present handset manufacturers with a little bit of a challenge, but I suspect they will meet this).

Meanwhile, India has half a dozen excellent W-CDMA 3G networks owned by half a dozen different companies, many of them non-Indian. But that is another story – one I will tell soon.

19 comments to How the Chinese screwed up their 3G mobile phone networks

  • jay

    maybe try 2005 for the RAZR, which only went to market in 2004?

  • Michael Jennings

    Indeed. Typo. 2005 was intended. Now fixed.

  • Stonyground

    Comment deleted from this posting and attached instead to the previous posting,which is clearly where it was intended to go.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I am sure it is all an unscrewed-able asian plan to dominate the globe, in some nefarious way! Those Fu Manchu books were documentaries, people!!!

  • This really gives wonderful insights into why state run businesses are such a terrible idea

  • Brian Micklethwait interjects: Most of this comment, which was a response to the comment which “Stonyground” placed here in error, has been removed and attached to the previous posting, together with Stonyground’s comment. The last bit of Kevin B’s comment refers to this posting, and here it is, still:

    As for the topic of the post, it would seem that the European method of enforcing standards, (with all the risks of cronyism, regulatory capture and technical stagnation that this entails), has worked out not too badly compared to the Chinese version.

    The big question is: would a free for all with no externally imposed standards have worked better?

  • I have now transferred both the comments placed here, but really about the previous posting, to the previous posting, as best I could.

    It was when the original comment placed here in error started being replied to here that I realised something had to be done.

    Think of it as a crossed line.

  • Current

    To begin with, a disclaimer…. I work for a large semiconductor company in the department responsible for communications chips.

    It seems unlikely to me that Siemen’s would mess this up so badly. It’s not that difficult to create a workable protocol. The real problem is creating one with good capacity characteristics. The problem for picking a standard is handling the most traffic at the lowest cost. Siemens may not be able to do as well as others in that, but their system should work. Does anyone have any proof that TD-SCDMA is based on Siemen’s rejected UMTS system? I’m not saying that Michael is lying, I just want to know how speculative the idea is.

    Remember on the base-station equipment side Nokia and Siemens merged in 2006-2007. Part of the problem here may have been that Siemens lost some “motivation” when that happened because selling WCDMA equipment would be more profitable.

    In some ways the base-station side is simpler. Even today base-stations aren’t very integrated. They use many “building block” chips. Often the high speed digital processing is done using FPGAs. The same thing can’t be done in consumer equipment though. In the handset you need highly integrated chipsets. Designing them and making them is not trivial. The problem is likely to be that nobody who can do it is willing to produce a proper series of them for TD-SCDMA as it is being developed. One chipset wouldn’t do, a whole series is needed over time to cope with protocol changes and improvements. There are certainly several TD-SCDMA chipsets out there, but perhaps no vendor has been willing to push the technology.

  • I am posting what I believe is most likely to be true. There is a lot of Kremlinology in writing about China, precisely because everything is so political and because history is told so as to fit the current political story. Yes, a reasonable amount of what I wrote is speculative, and I possibly should have stated more clearly where exactly I was joining dots. What I know to be true is this.

    Siemens did have a TDD and CDMA based proposal for the UMTS air interface. This lost out to W-CDMA around 1997, which (amongst other things) allowed Japan and Europe to have a joint proposal for IMT-2000, which was a good thing.

    China started talking about using its own similar TDD and CDMA proposal instead of the European and American proposals around 1999. Siemens was described as a partner in its development. It may be that the Chinese were already working on a similar system and that Siemens became involved because they had similar expertise that they wanted to share or the Chinese wanted them to share. Pretty clearly, though, there was technology and expertise transfer of some kind from Siemens previous work on a similar system as a proposal for UMTS, though. Siemens presence as a “partner” doesn’t make any sense, otherwise. How much of the system came from Siemens, I don’t know, but given the relative levels of expertise of German and Chinese engineers in 1997, I would guess a fair bit.

    Siemens and various Chinese organisations released a lot of press releases about all the great work they were doing together on TD-SCDMA between about 2001 and 2004. After about 2004, the volume of such press releases tends to drop off. I tend to think that this is about the moment when Siemens lost interest, and focused most or all of their resources on W-CDMA, as that was clearly the system with all the momentum in the world.

    China Mobile then launched a TD-SCDMA system that wasn’t ready for prime time in 2008 before the Olympics, and have since then been clearly lying about the number of subscribers it has and how well it works. (The most obvious way to learn something about this is to go into a shop in Beijing, attempt to buy a TD-SCDMA handset, and see what happens and if one succeeds in buying one, how well it works. I haven’t done this, although I have been into shops in Beijing to look around. TD-SCDMA handsets are thin on the ground. People using modern smartphones are using the other networks).

    It may be that the Chinese were largely on their own with respect to this system from around 2004, and development of it has been slow as a consequence. I suspect it is also the case that everyone in China from China Mobile down has had the system foisted on them against their will for political reasons, and has thus lacked enthusiasm for it. And so the system has been developed slowly compared to other systems with much greater international support and economies of scale, and it is not so much that the system is fundamentally flawed and/or cannot be made to work as that it has not been, largely for political reasons and because it simply has not had anything like the level of expertise and resources poured on it that other systems have. (The first W-CDMA networks and handsets were buggy and had all kinds of teething problems, but the system works fine now). Everyone is now waiting for a much more international compliant 4G system to come along, and I can’t blame them.

    (And yes, I have seen recent annoucements of multi-system chipsets that include TD-SCDMA. It may be that the system is becoming viable just as it is being superceded. It is too late for widespread adoption now, however).

    I was certainly not attempting to imply that Siemens’ engineers had tried to build a system and failed due to any inadequacies as engineers. (Siemens had and has excellent engineers). The story is more one of how politics can trump engineering, which has certainly happened.

  • Current

    The reason I’m wary of this explanation is I had some experience of the system. At a place I worked in 2003-2004 there were some people working on TD-SCDMA related things (called UMTS TDD then), in association with a company called IPAccess. That system works reasonably well and has done for some time. Despite a great deal of effort by Nokia and Ericsson to talk it down at that time, it is used in many niche applications not just in China but in many other places too.

    It’s worth mentioning that many of the technical decisions of the time-divided protocols like TD-SCDMA have proven good. The WCDMA approach of overlaying all codes onto the same spectrum at the same time didn’t scale. It’s now only used for basic WCDMA. The follow on modifications HSDPA and HSUPA use time division. Those systems (and LTE) owe much more to older systems and alternative systems than to WCDMA. I.e. they owe a lot to EVDO, 802.11g, TD-SCDMA and GSM.

    I think there must be a lot more to the story that we don’t know about. I might ask some people I know in comms systems what they think happened.

  • If they tell you anything, please leave another comment here. I would be fascinated to know.

  • Paul Marks

    A country where metioning the names of senior government people on a website will get you blocked.

    And a country where a stock market fall could not be mentioned – because the number was the same as the date of the mass murder of 1989.

    Yet this poxed up Empire is on the way to be the leading power of the world.

    Due to the insane tax-and-spend policies of the West. The substition of the state for civil society – in everything from old age to health care.

    A curse on the left for doing this – and a curse on those “realistic conservatives” (around the world) who did not resist it – instead argueing over details such as whether tax money would be used to fund state owned services or given to crony capitalists to run services instead.

  • I’m interested in Kevin B’s question. I can say, for example, that I am very happy to have SIM cards and to be able to bring my own device to the network. I see Americans struggling with lack of ability to do this on certain networks, leading to comments like “I hope Verizon gets this amazing new device” on amazing new device news sites.

    Would completely unregulated spectrum lead to better products? I’d like to think so.

    Or could it be that we would need complete deregulation of everything to get enough increased wealth to compensate problems of fragmentation? That the EU mandating standards is the best we can hope for, all else being equal? That sounds depressing but plausible.

  • lucklucky

    “realistic conservatives”

    Socialist Right

  • Paul Marks

    I do not know whether “socialist” is formally the correct word Lucklady, But they are certainly no good.

    For example they see nothing wrong with the Weglin and Co, Konrad Hummler case.

    In 2009 the oldest private bank in Switzerland (founded in 1741) launched a formal attack on creeping totalitarianism in the United States (“Farewell America”) and announced it would no longer be doing business in America as only crony banks (in bed with government) could prosper under current conditions.

    In 2012 the Regime struck back – and the bank (thousands of miles away from the United States) was destroyed. The “crime” – not reporting American citizens who might not be paying all the taxes the Regime demanded.

    Try to look this up on “Wikipedia”.

    Look for an article on Konrad Hummler or the bank (the oldest bank in Switzerland).


    The West does not need China to teach us about totalitarianism – it is comming here on its own.

    Bit by bit.

    The form?

    What used to be called “the German form of Socialism” (in the First World War or under the Nazis).

    The outward form of private ownership perhaps will (perhaps) remain, but CONTROL will be with the state.

    And the existing business types?

    You can keep your high incomes – as long as you play ball.

    Otherwise we set the “Occupy” thugs on you (and on your families – oh yes they go after private homes also).

    People who do go along with all this can, I suppose, be called “socialists”.

    Although “cowardly shits” might be more accurate.

  • Rob: Well, there are lots of ways in which mobile phones have been regulated in the US over the years differs from that in other places. Just which difference or combination of differences is responsible for a particular different outcome is hard to say.

    With respect to there being carrier specific mobile phones over there, I think I would blame two, though. Firstly, there is that technology neutral thing. US carriers are free to do whatever they want with their spectrum, technology wise. That has meant that there are two main technical standards used in the US: the GSM family used by Europe and much of the rest of the world, and the CDMA family used in the Americas and a few other places. CDMA does not usually support SIMs and handsets are therefore not easily portable between carriers. The same handset might work on Sprint and Verizon, but you cannot buy that handset from a third party, and nor can you easily move a handset from Sprint to Verizon or vice versa. And of course, you cannot move a handset from a CDMA network to a GSM network or vice versa.

    The second issue is that US spectrum allocations are different from those in Europe, so even when you are using GSM family networks, a phone that works in Europe or elsewhere is not necessarily going to work in the US, particularly in the early years of a new technology when phones only support a small number of frequency bands and when customs and conventions for buying and using phones are being established. To make matters worse, the two GSM carriers in the US, AT&T and T-Mobile, use different 3G frequencies from each other. Therefore, phones cannot be transferred from network to network in the US the way they can in Europe, and phones can only be transferred from Europe or elsewhere to the US sometimes. (Most recent 3G smartphones from outside the US will work okay with AT&T, but not T-Mobile. The situation is complicated enough to have hindered the development of secondary markets).

    The good news is that almost all US carriers are using the same LTE technology as Europe for 4G, for which SIM cards are mandatory, and there will be fewer technology differences going forward. The bad news is that the issues with different spectrum allocations between carriers and countries is probably not going away, although there well definitely be more handset portability between US carriers than in the past.

    Now, having said all those relatively negative things about the US, the positive is that America has 4G LTE networks right now. The networks have been allowed to use their existing spectrum for 4G, and they have done so. In Britain there are no 4G networks, carriers are only allowed to use their spectrum for older technologies, and the carriers and the regulator have been busy arguing ferociously with one another and threatening to sue, because none of them want a situation in which one carrier gets an advantage over another. Meanwhile, there are no 4G networks here, and there will not be for at least a couple of years, one suspects.

    So the regulatory model that gave Europe a common standard and gave a European technical standard economies of scare and a strong international position in the past appears to have come to a complete standstill. The probably freer US model created a more chaotic market originally, but appears to be making more technical progress now, and technology has grown steadily more uniform over time. I can see good and bad coming out of choices made by both Europeans and Americans, here.

    The one thing that I think is a shame is that frequency allocations were not uniform throughout the world. From the lack of uniformity here, all I can see is bad.

  • Alisa

    Paul: there are in fact Wikipedia articles on Hummler and Wegelin, in German, French and Russian – but not in English.

  • Current

    In addition to what Michael Jennings has said…

    The situation in europe and america is quite different. Europe is more densely populated. Especially, US suburbs are less densely populated than european ones. These factors make deploying a network of any kind much more important in the US. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that mobile phones took longer to take-off there. The same is true vis-a-vis Japan and Europe, Japan is much more densely populated, making the number of customers per base-station much higher and therefore costs lower for carriers.

    Also, the US government released much less spectrum for mobile phone use than the European governments did. That also improved the cost structure in europe.

    I think the common GSM standard and SIM cards helped too, but their influence is exaggerated.