How AT&T Wireless and Cingular caught the handset manufacturing world with their pants down

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How AT&T Wireless and Cingular caught the handset manufacturing world with their pants down

For those mobile phone users who have been international travelers the landscape has changed of late. Originally, if you wanted to use one GSM handset both in the United States and abroad, you needed a dual-band handset, which used 900 MHz GSM in the country of your choice abroad and 1900 MHz (on Sprint here in the United States, followed by other GSM providers). Most early adopters started with the 900/1900 MHz Bosch WorldPhone, which was, we believe, the first dual-band WorldPhone.

As the 900 MHz spectrum became overloaded, 1800 MHz was paired with it. Since there were no tri-band (900/1800/1900 MHz) handsets, most international travelers had a 1900 MHz handset for use with the increasing number of GSM service providers in the United States, and a 900/1800 MHz handset for use in Europe and Asia. Eventually it was recognized that some international travelers wanted a single handset, and we believe the 900/1800/1900 MHz Motorola Timeport became the first of the tri-band WorldPhones, leaving dual-band handsets obsolete.

It looked as if this was the way thing would stay, save for the oddity of Latin America, with Panama using GSM 850. Then AT&T Wireless and Cingular made the business decision to add GSM to their AMPS/TDMA base. This created something of a problem, as both companies owned a lot of 800 MHz spectrum. And so they started implementing GSM 850. It appeared to many of us that this would not be a significant factor for users in most areas of the U.S. until the last quarter of 2004, or perhaps the first quarter of 2005. It apparently caught some manufacturers by surprise, too. As late as last year Nokia said that no country outside of the United States had implemented GSM 850, and that only Cingular had implemented or expressed any intention to implement in North America.

We were all wrong. We know AT&T Wireless customers in Boston who get no reception in their offices with 1900 MHz handsets, but excellent reception with 850/1900 MHz handsets. And GSM 850 has been implemented in a number of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, if you travel widely in Latin America you need all four bands: 850, 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz.

This means that, in the period of a year, tri-band international handsets became as obsolete as dual-band international handsets. Unfortunately, the development time for a terminal is some years. Since the manufacturers of handsets appear to have been unaware of this technical shift, and caught by surprise, a flow of obsolete-before-release tri-band handsets is still coming off the assembly lines.

What does this mean to you, the business traveler who uses GSM? Well, you still need 900/1800 in Europe and Asia, and you now need 850/1900 MHz in the United States, and you need all four in Latin America. You have three possible solutions for widest GSM coverage.

1. You can have two dual-band devices: A 900/1800 MHz device for Europe, Asia, and parts of Latin America, and an 850/1900 MHz device for North America and parts of Latin America.

2. You can follow Nokia’s advice and have two tri-band devices: A 900/1800/1900 MHz device for Europe, Asia, and parts of Latin America, and an 850/1900/1800 MHz device for North America and other parts of Latin America.

3. You can have a quad-band WorldPhone to give you coverage everywhere you go. The selection is rather slim at the moment: Two devices from NEC, three devices from Motorola, and one device from Palm/Handspring. If you assume you need a device that won’t be confiscated because it contains a camera, you have one choice at present: The NEC 515.

Until there is a larger selection of camera-free quad-band devices, it seems to us that choice one is the most reasonable, followed by choice two. Choice two seems less reasonable in theory because you have redundant circuitry on each handset that will most likely never be used. In practice it may be more reasonable if those handsets have features you want, which are not available in the dual-band devices. In this case you simply pretend that the never-to- be-used frequency simply isn’t there.

The important thing, however, is not what you need as a user, but the fact that the handset manufacturers – and the service providers – were caught so unawares by this transition. It is inexcusable that anyone would make a handset that might be used in Europe or Asia that does not contain both 900 MHz and 1800 MHz. It is inexcusable that anyone would make a handset that might be used in North America that does not contain both 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. We know of a lot of people who are holding out for a better selection of camera-free quad-band handsets, which means that sales that could and would be made now, when economic times are tough, are being deferred until the industry catches up to the reality of the quad-band GSM world created by AT&T Wireless and Cingular.

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