Sunday, June 1, 2008

China will/won't allow cdma2000

Back in November 2000, I needed a case to teach political risk. So I wrote one about Qualcomm's on-again, off-again relationship with the Chinese government and state-owned carrier China Unicom — the one that eventually allowed Unicom to offer cdmaOne 2G mobile phone service in China. (My teaching case “Qualcomm in China” was used to flesh out the China portion of Dave Mock’s Qualcomm book).

Last month, the Chinese government unveiled a master reorg of telecommunications carriers is realigning six companies to three, each of which will have a wireline and mobile operation. China Unicom will be broken up, and its CDMA operations sold to China Telecom (the dominant wireline carrier) while its GSM network will be sold to China Netcom. One estimate places the value of the CDMA network at $13-15 billion.

But after that, nobody can agree on what’s happen — which exactly makes the point of the original case that a lack of policy transparency creates high risk and uncertainty for Western firms operating in China.

Among the disputed predictions that are the source of so much speculation:
  • Will it create real competition for China Mobile, which with nearly 400 million subscribers is the world’s largest cell phone operator? An expert interviewed by the FT said “There will be no way to create a real three-way fight – China Mobile will still be the big one standing alone” but the market pummeled China Mobile shares on the assumption that it will have real competition.
  • Supposedly having three carriers means three 3G licenses will be issued, solving a long-standing problem in Chinese telecom policies. Some say (as has been long predicted) it will happen in time to showcase Chinese wireless technology for the 2008 Olympics, but others say it won’t happen until 2009.
  • Many say it clears the way for every carrier to deploy TD-SCDMA, but TheStreet speculates that all three types of 3G will be deployed: TD-SCDMA with China Mobile, W-CDMA with China Netcom and cdma2000 with China Telecom. With this plan, CT would have a huge time to market advantage because the cdma2000 upgrade is faster and cheaper, while China Mobile would deploy the least proven technology (one it has been trailing for several years).
  • Reportedly one expert claims that China will skip 3G to 4G (see the comments on this post). It would certainly make sense technologically — allowing China to skip a generation of infrastructure development and giving its manufacturers a huge leg up on 4G equipment deployment. The problem is that the comment is attributed to Willie Lu, a prolific wireless researcher who is well connected and well trained (although a lousy webmaster), but a 4G promoter based in America who speaks for himself and not the Chinese government.
So will there be a TD-SCDMA? Will Qualcomm make any money from it? As with a year ago, everything is still up in the air.

Qualcomm is notoriously secretive in disclosing its royalty terms, which makes it difficult for researchers like me but also leaves it vulnerable to accusations of violating the non-discriminatory part of RAND patent licensing terms. One report I thought curious was an account Friday that claimed that China Telecom signed a deal with Qualcomm to pay CDMA royalties at 4%.

Reviewing my notes from the Qualcomm in China case, it’s clear that report is wrong. The list price for QCOM’s patents is known to be in the 4-5% range. I reported back in 2001 that on behalf of Unicom and its suppliers, the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) negotiated Irwin Jacobs down to 2.65% for handsets and 1% for infrastructure. So there’s no way the MII-led reorg will cause China Telecom to pay 4% royalties for Unicom’s existing 2G network.

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