Finland Plums for Flarion Flash-OFDM. Europe to follow?

Finland Plums for Flarion Flash-OFDM. Europe to follow?The announcement of the Finnish 450 MHz cellular data licence isn’t today’s surprise; the surprise is that Flarion – the technology provider – is not announcing that Flash-OFDM is now an ITU standard. There should have been such an announcement: why the delay?

Politics is as important as technology to the future of wireless broadband, and the battle between next generation technology providers is being fought between Qualcomm and Flarion on one hand, and Qualcomm and IP Wireless on the other.

The claim made by Flarion is that if you use normal cellphone frequencies, but add orthogonal frequency division multiplexing technology to it, you can get an order of magnitude more users per cell, and more data per user. Finland seems to have bought the idea: the first Flash-OFDM network contract has been awarded.

It could be the first domino.

Europe has been playing with Flarion technology for a couple of years. Trials have been set up – like the T-Mobile experiment in The Hague last year. And more significantly, there have been rumours of trials in Eastern Europe – countries like Lithuania and Estonia.

Traditionally, Finland has been a pioneer of high speed data, and those countries take their cue for technology from there; and the buzz in the cellular world is that several Governments in former Eastern Bloc territories will now follow suit and buy Flash-OFDM.

The Finnish contract is for re-using the old analogue phone frequencies. The same 450 MHz band is coming up for re-assignment in many European countries, and the front runners there, as in Finland, will be Qualcomm’s CDMA technology.

Qualcomm isn’t going to take that lying down. It’s been trying to lobby European and Eastern European and Middle Eastern comms authorities for a while – unsuccessfully, so far.

A couple of contracts will go to Qualcomm – because it owns majority shares in the network providers there. But this is a major setback for its plan to win back the geography it lost when GSM was invented.

Finland Plums for Flarion Flash-OFDM. Europe to follow?Official details of the announcement include optimistic pronouncements from Flarion, but nothing about what really matters: the need for the Flarion Flash-OFDM technology to be a standard.

The reason for that, say sources in the IEEE, is simple: the standard was supposed to be announced by both the ITU and the IEEE. But the 802.20 process is stalled, and nobody who knows what is going on inside the IEEE doubts that this is because Qualcomm is lobbying fiercely, using “patriotic” arguments.

The result is that in a sense, Qualcomm will win: the ITU will adopt the Flarion technology, and the IEEE will delay its announcement – possibly for months, even years.

That will make the matter look as if it is Europe against America. That in turn could hold up the standardisation process even longer; American technology companies don’t all worship at the CDMA altar, and many of them are making fortunes out of GSM. But Congress is full of people who do not understand this. And Qualcomm lobbyists will not fail to exploit this.

The losers, of course, will be the mobile networks. They need this sort of technology if they are to survive the avalanche of ideas like BT Fusion. Fusion has gone off half-cocked, perhaps; but the idea will be refined, and not only by BT and Vodafone.

What the operators of the world need is a technology that gives them data speeds and capacities, sufficient to match what can be done with technology like WiFi and WiMAX. So Qualcomm may not, in fact, make itself too many friends by forcing people to choose between CDMA and WiFi, when their tests seem to show that there is a viable alternative.

Guy Kewney has been writing on technology for longer than most. He runs as well as writing for many including VNU.