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Wireless CEOs target standards battle

Chief executives of Vodafone and AirTouch say they will pressure international regulators and manufacturers to establish global wireless standards as quickly as possible.

SAN FRANCISCO--Using the weight of their newly-combined company, the CEOs of Vodafone Group and AirTouch Communications say they will pressure international regulators and manufacturers to establish global wireless standards as quickly as possible.

An international body is in the middle of setting standards--which would allow customers to use their equipment anywhere in the world--for a new generation of digital mobile phones.

But low-level feuding between European regulators, who back a standard supported by Ericsson, and U.S. officials, who don't want a Qualcomm-backed coalition ignored in European markets, has thrown a wrench into this process.

In an interview with CNET, AirTouch chief executive Sam Ginn and Vodafone CEO Chris Gent said that one of their top priorities for the merged company would be to put an end to the standards struggle.

"We're going to talk to anyone who will listen to us, whether it's regulators or manufacturers," Ginn said.

The company stands to benefit greatly from an internationally-accepted wireless standard as its positions itself to increase its global business.

"We're going to buy the most amount of infrastructure in the world. We're going to buy the most handsets in the world," Ginn said. "It is inconceivable to me that we won't have any influence on the process."

Wireless carriers such as AirTouch and Vodafone also serve as both distributors of wireless phones and purchasers of wireless network equipment, giving the companies some leverage with manufacturers. The manufacturers, in turn, play a large part in the development of standards for equipment, or create their products to match existing standards adopted by other companies.

Two standards camps
The feud was sparked by two competing proposals for the global wireless standard. The CDMA 2000 standard is supported by Qualcomm and the 110-member CDMA Development Group. A coalition of European companies and carriers supports a different, incompatible version called W-CDMA, or wideband CDMA.

The International Telecommunications Union, which is developing the single standard, has temporarily put its process on hold while it works out intellectual property issues between the two proposals.

But the European Standards Institute, another standards body that has historically supported European manufacturers' proposals, recently said it was going ahead with its own standards process.

That has prompted an escalating series of angry exchanges between United States and European officials.

"It's fairly serious," said Perry LaForge, executive director of the CDMA Development Group. "I think the rapidity of the [officials'] response shows they're pretty concerned over the gamesmanship going on at this point."

Nevertheless, many other companies aside from AirTouch and Vodafone are working to find a quick resolution, one that likely finds a compromise between the two competing proposals, LaForge said.

"They are just one company among many weighing in on this issue," he added. "I would hope we'll have a resolution in a few months."

The ITU has set a March deadline for releasing a final round of proposals for a global wireless standard, and has said it will make a final decision by the end of December.