Saturday, March 04, 2006

Across the Spectrum: GSM in Iraq

Not just GSM, but perhaps even fixed-mode WiMAX (802.16-2004) too. IEEE Spectrum has a fantastic feature on the success of mobile telecoms in Iraq, contrasting with the far worse progress of the copperwire system and (as reported in last month's issue) the disastrous failure of electricity restoration. Before going on further, can I just point out that IEEE Spectrum is one of the things on the Internet that are most worth reading right now? It may be the work of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers, but the geek-level is low enough for that not to hurt. The breadth of subject is impressive (from interviewing Lawrence "Creative Commons" Lessing to testing robot spaceprobes in the Chilean desert), and the journalistic depth isn't bad either.

And the online edition is free.

Spectrum's Glenn Zorpette reports that Iraq now has four official mobile network operators (which I knew) and (which I didn't) another six pirates. Oddly enough, an unauthorised GSM net was shut down last week in Kabul after WACC complained of interference. Secret mobile networks - a contradiction in terms when you think it involves radio transmitters - seem to be an odd phenomenon of the War On Terror. The decision was taken early on to permit essentially open slather and concentrate US and Iraqi government efforts on restoring the long lines, fibre and VSAT infrastructure. The contractor, Bechtel, employed Iraqi engineers as far as possible (a major difference from the situation with the electricity projects, which were beset by ignorant US carpetbaggers) and (it sez here) "overcame tremendous setbacks" like the insurgents blowing up and shooting coworkers, digging up the cables, etc.

One thing that isn't mentioned, but was of considerable importance, is that the Congressman From Qualcomm, Rep. Darrell Issa, was nixed in his effort to get a clause into a defence appropriations bill that would have obliged the Iraqis to use the (Qualcomm-built) CDMA2000 standard on the grounds that GSM was "a French technology" (Tell that to Siemens, Ericsson, Bell Labs, Motorola, Nokia, Marconi as was...) That would also have barred them from using mobile phones in any of the countries around Iraq.

Now, apparently, some Iraqi officials are being sufficiently grandiose to envision a widespread deployment of WiMAX IEEE802.16d data service. Iraq may become a country with a wire-free telecoms infrastructure, even as the war rages.

The lessons seem clear: standards, not standardisation, the low-cost equipment this enables, a minimal infrastructure footprint, competition, and concentration on getting an immediate benefit to the end user. Compare the bureaucracy, US arrogance, inflexibility and obsession with bespoke projects that doomed the electricity rebuilding..

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