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Qualcomm plans to phone it in on cellular repairs

Over-the-air fixes for cell phones come to Qualcomm's CDMA.

SAN FRANCISCO--Routine maintenance work on hundreds of millions of cell phones in the Americas, China and Korea usually involves a trip to the store.

But that's going to change by the middle of next year, when carriers will send needed fixes over the air without a subscriber even knowing, says a source at Qualcomm, whose CDMA cell phone technology dominates in these markets.

To make this possible for CDMA operators, Qualcomm has entered into a development deal with Insignia Solutions, and one other specialist in distributing firmware, software critical to running electronic devices.

To perform a similar upgrade now, cell phones typically must be tethered to a computer, where the new programming is stored. Such intricate work is something most cell phone subscribers can't do, hence the store visit.

The Qualcomm development is a significant step for operators using CDMA, a dominant phone standard in Korea, China and most of North America. Many more carriers using rival standard GSM--which powers 70 percent of the world's cell phone networks--will add the same functionality in the coming weeks, says Peter Bernard, Insignia chief product officer.

"There are a lot of GSM operators that will be doing this very soon," Bernard said. "CDMA operators will now be able to roll it out in the near future."

While at first just for maintenance work, operators could now sell subscribers new cell phone user interfaces, or expanded calendar programs. But such firmware upgrades, while more lucrative for carriers to sell, may run counter to new efforts by Japan's NTT DoCoMo and Europe's Vodafone and Orange to play a bigger role in what goes into the handsets, according to Juha Christensen, president of the mobile and device business at Macromedia.

Qualcomm intends to announce the new deal with Insignia Tuesday at the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment 2004 trade show in San Francisco.