CDMA has some technical advantages, but it has lost the war in the global marketplace for second generation (2G and 2G+) cellular systems. As a technology it is surviving, at least into the next generation, but that might not be enough for today’s CDMA operators. Conventional wisdom states that today’s GSM operators should evolve towards wideband CDMA (WCDMA), and today’s CDMA operators towards CDMA2000, thus perpetuating incompatibility well into the future. Because of sheer numbers, most of the development effort, products and roaming capability are associated with the GSM evolutionary path, giving GSM operators an advantage in the progression to third generation (3G) and beyond. As a result, the future looks uncertain for CDMA operators and their customers.
There have been indications that CDMA operators are either considering or planning GSM overlays, or even abandoning CDMA. A complicating factor is the appearance of the mobile version of WiMAX, which promises both mobile and fixed broadband services. Since WiMAX’s role in the evolution of cellular services is not yet clear, it is unlikely to address the immediate concerns of CDMA operators. For example, Intel intends to integrate WiMAX and Wi-Fi into its notebook computer components, which would help the case for WiMAX as portable broadband access technology (much like Wi-Fi), but that alone would not make it a mobile solution like cellular services. Both GSM and CDMA operators could incorporate WiMAX into their mobile solutions, but again that would not address the 3G incompatibility problem, unless both groups agreed to replace their respective evolutionary paths with a common WiMAX solution.
At the dawn of cellular systems, it was understandable that different technologies would need to fight in the market-place and in the politically-charged realms of standardization. Ideally, the outcome should have been determined by the ability of customers to decide which approach is best. What we have been witnessing, however, is a battle that is effectively obscure and irrelevant to customers. If the true value of mobile communications lies in services, applications and content, then why are we still burdened by a legacy battle over the “plumbing”? Operators need to seriously consider the risks in pursuing this approach. While the cost of changing direction is not trivial, neither is the cost of pursuing a lost cause.
Enterprises will need to invest much more in systems and services in order to provide seamless mobility and unified communications (integrated voice, e-mail, etc.). They will need not just handsets and services but in-building wireless networks. It is becoming absurd that they should have to tackle this while facing the nightmare of more and more wireless interfaces. Furthermore, it will verge on abuse if marketers dare to talk at this time about their particular approach being the stepping stone to 4G, while they are making such a prolonged muddle of 3G and 3G+. It is time for the mobile industry in North America to mature and converge on open global standards; handsets need to be independent of both public and enterprise networks. Once we standardize the plumbing, the real competition can begin. Now, it would be naïve to expect that such an appeal means much to an operator that thinks it has a good chance of continuing to lock-in its customers by maintaining the current approach. It will take customers to vote with their purchases, which will soon be made easier in Canada with number portability.