International Disconnect

Long-fragmented U.S. wireless networks have created a chasm in the global business network.

There's little argument that the worldwide mobile business environment is fragmented. And the U.S. is largely culpable for that.

The U.S. trails Europe and Asia in network and device interoperability, mainly because U.S. mobile network operators have long used different network protocols and varying generations of cellular technologies. As a result, devices that work on one kind of cellular network don't work on another. They also don't function on networks that use the same technology but are run by different operators. For reasons such as those, U.S. smart-phone sales lag behind those in Asia and Europe (see chart).

That's the sour story in the U.S. In Europe and most of Asia, the situation is sweeter: Devices and services interoperate fairly consistently on networks based on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard, and carriers provide mix-and-match capabilities. While all three continents are near parity in the availability of handsets and content services, the protocol inconsistencies hit business users hardest when they travel from the U.S. to Europe or Asia or vice versa.

Users are in pretty good shape if they travel within a single country or, say, within the European Union. In Europe, the interoperability among different operators' networks "provides us the benefit of good coverage," says Jane Kimberlin, IT director at Domino's Pizza Group Ltd. in Milton-Keynes, England.

But the U.S. chose in the early 1990s to follow two distinct wireless protocol paths -- Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and GSM -- and the nation's largest providers joined one technology camp or the other. GSM was adopted throughout most of the rest of the world, so users of CDMA-based U.S. services (offered by Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Wireless) are often out of luck when they travel to other countries.

Farzad Golshani

Farzad Golshani"We have worldwide clients, producers and agents, but there are no [handheld] devices we can give them that work all over globe," says Farzad Golshani, vice president of IT at Transamerica Corp. in Los Angeles. "Our biggest issue is the lack of compatibility between network protocols and devices."

As a result, Golshani says, most of Transamerica's business travelers use laptop PCs to connect to the corporate virtual private network via land lines.

Voice is less problematic: IT departments can buy their traveling users quad-band GSM phones that work in the U.S. and nearly everywhere else in the world. However, CDMA users will have to rent a phone when they go to an Asian or European country that supports only GSM.

State of the mobile world
SOURCES: AT&T/Cingular, Vodafone Group, Sprint Nextel and Clearwire press releases; Strategy Analytics, Telwares, Informa Telecoms and Media, 3G Americas industry consortium; Forrester Research Inc.
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