Traveler’s regret

Traveler’s regret – Column

Nancy Gohring

European travelers have sometimes asked me why I don’t display a Canadian flag on my backpack when traveling-even when they know I hail from Chicago. People from the U.S. have such reputations as loud, obnoxious, inconsiderate travelers, that some American globetrotters pose as their more respectful northern neighbors by adopting a common Canadian practice-affixing a Canadian flag patch on their backpacks. European travelers are wise to the trick but appreciate the tricksters who may not fit the American stereotype.

At times during the CDMA World Congress in Singapore, I wished I had a Canadian flag sewn to my suit.

Discussions at the Congress often turned to standards and government regulations, especially when former FCC Chairman Reed Hunt was present. At these times, I wished not to be associated with the U.S.-when European journalists pointed to high penetration rates and advanced services in their countries, and Hunt, with typical American arrogance, responded by defending even the C block debacle.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a patriotic American. It’s just that sometimes I hesitate to admit, as a member of the wireless industry, that I live in such a well-developed country with such an under-developed wireless market.

Hunt seems blind to the facts. “Penetration is soaring. Usage is going up… All this is driven by competition,” he said.

However, according to The Strategis Group, Europe’s subscriber base will surpass the U.S. for the first time this year by 8 million and will continue to grow faster than the U.S. past the turn of the century.

It’s easy to point to the success of European policies. Despite governmental mandates to use GSM technology in Europe, the region boasts some of the highest penetration rates in the world, and operators there offer some of the most innovative features. The U.S., on the other hand, with its policy of promoting competition by allowing each operator to choose its own technology, boasts low penetration rates and meager usage of enhanced features.

Even before the conference began, I was faced with the inferiority of the U.S. wireless market. During a vacation week in Malaysia before attending the Congress, I explained to other travelers that I would be visiting Singapore to attend a wireless telecommunications conference. To my surprise, most were eager to talk about wireless technology and were knowledgeable about the networks in their own countries.

They were interested to hear about the U.S. wireless market. They were amazed that I had to rent a wireless phone if I wanted to use one overseas. They were surprised that a GSM subscriber in New York City could not use her phone in Chicago. And they expressed condolences that I am reluctant to give out my mobile phone number because I don’t want to pay for unwanted incoming calls.

With all these facts on the table, it’s hard to legitimately defend U.S. policies. Instead, we might try to learn from some other successful markets. One journalist pointed out to Hunt that mandating one technology does not squash competition. In Europe, for example, competition exists among multiple carriers and infrastructure vendors, all of which use the same technology. Wireless vendors there can concentrate on developing better equipment and better services for that chosen technology.

After all, perhaps there isn’t all that much difference between the many technologies available today. Matt Desch, president of Northern Telecom, thinks they are all about the same. What matters is the quality of the equipment and operators’ marketing savvy.

Even though many vendors, operators and analysts-not just Hunt-have hailed the U.S. open policy as good for competition, recent 3G discussions render that support questionable. Why now are so many people clamoring for one worldwide 3G standard if they believe that multiple 2G standards have been good for competition and development? Perhaps it’s because-although U.S. players may be reluctant to admit it-Europe’s decision to go with one technology in the past has proved more successful than the U.S. multi-technology strategy.

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