Qualcomm's latest defection

Matt Lewis
19 Mar 2008

Earlier this month, T-Mobile Austria announced that it was handing back its 450 MHz license to the country's telecom regulator. The news was not viewed with much significance since T-Mobile had only planned to use the spectrum to support its HSDPA deployment. However, the operator had intended to use Flash-OFDM technology, and it represents yet another operator defecting away from a Qualcomm backed technology.

Flash-OFDM was developed by Flarion Technologies back in 2000, and after struggling for several years to secure any serious operator deployments, the company was acquired by Qualcomm in August 2005 for an eye-popping $600 million - a decent achievement for a company which was able to boast of having virtually no customers. Original investors in Flarion included Bessemer Venture Partners, Lucent, Cisco and, interestingly, T-Mobile.

It was expected that Qualcomm would give Flash-OFDM a stronger home, but the true motivation behind the transition was to milk Flarion's OFDM patent portfolio since the modulation scheme is used in every next-generation technology currently being considered by operators including LTE, mobile Wimax and UMB.

While Flash-ODFM was trialed by several operators, including Sprint Nextel, Telstra and Softbank Mobile (back when it was Vodafone KK) it is Digita's 450 MHz deployment in Finland and a T-Mobile deployment in Slovakia which remain the technology's most significant presence to date.

T-Mobile Austria paid a million dollars for the license back in 2006 and expected to deploy Flash-OFDM to supplement its HSPA network, although it's not clear exactly what benefits this would have delivered. No doubt, the operator found that HSPA didn't require much supplementing and supporting two different network technologies was an unnecessary headache.

While T-Mobile Austria's dumping of Flash-OFDM will not cause Paul Jacobs to lose any sleep this week - the operator sits at number two in the Austrian market with a paltry 3.5 million subscribers - it does represent a steady stream of operator defections away from Qualcomm backed next-generation technologies over the past year. Flash-OFDM defections may not keep Jacobs awake at night, but UMB defections do.

UMB (Ultra Mobile Broadband) is Qualcomm's answer to LTE and mobile Wimax and is the next evolution beyond the company's CMDA EV-DO Rev B. By all accounts, UMB is a pretty decent piece of kit. It supports data speeds of 275 Mbps downstream and over 75 Mbps upstream and provides compatibility with the CDMA2000 1X and 1xEV-DO systems it replaces.

However, wireless is a game where simply being better is not sufficient to win and most of Qualcomm's big CDMA customers have defected to one of the other two competing technologies - LTE or mobile Wimax.

I'm unaware of any EV-DO operator which has committed to UMB. In fact, I'm unaware of any operator period which has announced they will be supporting UMB.

The reality is that LTE and mobile Wimax have stolen a huge lead on UMB and even though none of these technologies are as yet fully commercial (Wimax probably being the closest) CDMA operators realize that committing to UMB would be suicidal while their competitors are able to enjoy the scale economic achieved when LTE and Wimax go mass-market. This is not an insignificant affect - 3G Node B prices have plummeted 50% in three years owing to the extensive rollout of the technology.

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