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Lucent building wireless bridges

The networking equipment maker joins Nokia and Qualcomm in trying to get incompatible cell phone networks on speaking terms.

Lucent Technologies is trying to get cell phone networks on speaking terms, the networking equipment maker said Monday.

A newly released version of its flagship product, the Flexent Modular Cell base station, will soon be able to act as a "bridge" between two advanced wireless networks based on incompatible cell phone standards, a company representative said.

Lucent joins Qualcomm and Nokia in taking the first few steps toward creating a single wireless network that can host calls from any cell phone, regardless of the standard it's based on. Calls between interoperable standards are now possible--but only using methods that are more crude and expensive to build.

Those involved with such projects warn that the wireless industry is in the early stages of such a mammoth undertaking, and these developments represent only a small step forward. Lucent's new base station being tested in Connecticut and Florida by Verizon Wireless, for instance, is just a small part of a cellular phone network. The rest of the necessary network equipment likely won't be developed for years to come.

"We're talking way off in the future," said Ichiro Kawasaki, a Lucent spokesman.

Lucent's base station can be used only by wireless carriers whose phone networks use the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) family of standards. Kawasaki said the base station is designed, however, to ferry calls from phones that use a standard called wideband-CDMA. The station could also provide a bridge between wideband-CDMA and several standards that are interoperable, including CDMA20001x EV-DO.

While Lucent works on the network side, companies that produce handsets and applications are also buzzing with activity.

Handset maker Nokia recently demonstrated what it's calling a "milestone" for cell phone network interoperability. Nokia engineers were able to send a wireless message with a media attachment from a cell phone using the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard to a cell phone using CDMA. About 80 percent of the world's phone networks use GSM, with the remainder powered by CDMA.

"Wireless technology interoperability is possible, and it will deliver significant benefits," said Bill Plummer, vice president of strategy for Nokia.

Qualcomm, which makes cell phone chips, plans a mid-2003 release of a new set of processors that will allow wireless devices to tap into networks based on both GSM and CDMA.

Qualcomm is also beginning to win some attention from carriers for its GSM1x, created so GSM carriers can add CDMA20001xrtt, a cell phone and wireless Web network built using the CDMA standard. The GSM and 1x cell phone standards are usually incompatible.