Missing out on games glory

10 Mar 2008

Nowhere is the 2008 Olympics more keenly anticipated than in the host nation.

While athletes all over the world ready themselves for the 2008 Olympics, China has been beavering away on new communications technologies. Unfortunately, none of these will be fully ready by the opening ceremony on August 8.

The biggest washout of all is the TD-SCDMA (or 'tedious CDMA', as it has become known after years of delay) mobile standard. Officially, it's 'China's own' 3G standard, although Nokia Siemens and Alcatel-Lucent own more than half the patents.

Olympics visitors will be able to send back photos of the opening ceremony via TD-SCDMA, HSDPA, EDGE or cdma-1x networks - in other words, every flavor of 3G except W-CDMA or cdma EVDO, which together account for at least 80% of all 3G services.

Indigenous laggard

It is a national embarrassment that the planned showcase of 'China's own' 3G at Olympic Games should have failed. It is the only infrastructure item that won't be ready for the August games.

Many point the finger of blame at state-owned vendor Datang Telecom, which holds most of China's TD-SCDMA patents. After years of losses, Datang was restructured late last year, a new chairman put in place and given state credit lines of up to 60 billion yuan ($8.3 billion).

But it's unfair to blame Datang, which is owned by a government research institute with no visible business expertise.

The country is awash with the fever of 'indigenous innovation', aimed at countering what are claimed to be foreign monopolies in technology. The sheer injustice of having to pay patent fees to foreigners is a popular grievance among officials and commentators.

In the name of indigenous innovation, China's cabinet last December approved a plan for a 'mobile wireless broadband communications network', intended to drive TD-SCDMA technology into 4G. Reportedly, the Ministry of Finance will kick in 20 billion yuan and the carriers and vendors another 50 billion.

It's one of 20 major projects slated for completion by 2020 - among them China's own jumbo jet.
But as the TD example shows, top-down state-driven industrial development has its limitations. Three decades into its economic reform, China has not a single global brand. Japan by the same stage was exporting Hondas, Yamahas and Sonys around the world.

The baleful effects of heavy-handed industry policy are nowhere more visible than in the battle over mobile TV, where rival government departments are pushing opposing standards.

The broadcast ministry, SARFT, is pushing ahead with CMMB (China Multimedia Broadcasting), a hybrid satellite-terrestrial technology that is already mandated for broadcasters.

SARFT plans to roll it out to 37 cities, and though predictably that won't happen until after the Olympics, it will offer service during the games for those who manage to get hold of a terminal. Once the network is complete, it will provide a platform for SARFT to provide a national datacasting network in opposition to the mobile carriers.

Four or five standards are slugging it out in the telecom camp, with the MII apparently pushing a dedicated TD-SCDMA mobile TV standard, TD-MBMS.

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