A key committee of the International Telecommunications Union , meeting in Forteleza, Brazil, agreed to support several different wireless technologies backed by competing companies.
The obscure debate has set transatlantic tempers flaring, as top U.S. trade officials and European regulators have each lobbied to protect the interests of wireless phone manufacturers in their respective regions.
The issue will control how and where consumers can use their cellular phones when the next generation of wireless technology hits the street. Third-generation phones promise to offer high-speed Internet connections and other new services, but the technology is still in flux.
The ITU's original goal, supported by some of the big international wireless carriers, had been to create a single worldwide phone standard. This would ultimately allow users to take their phones from country to country, without having to switch between different types of handsets.
In today's fragmented wireless world, different countries, and even regions in the United States, use incompatible types of technology, rendering many phones useless while traveling.
The bitterness over the debate has stemmed the incompatibility of these existing services, and the costs in upgrading existing networks to the powerful new third-generation technologies.
Qualcomm and Ericsson are both supporting different flavors of a technology called CDMA, or code-division multiple access. The Ericsson-backed W-CDMA serves as an upgrade path for GSM phones, which are used by half the wireless consumers in the world, while Qualcomm's CDMA2000 upgrades today's CDMA operators.
Another group of carriers, such as AT&T in the United States, support another more divergent standard, dubbed TDMA.
The ITU's decision to endorse all of these standards for the next generation of wireless technology now throws the discussion back to the companies involved, who will have to figure out how to make phones that use several standards, or reduce the incompatibilities involved.
A group of carriers in both CDMA camps will meet next week in London to try to harmonize the two competing CDMA standards. If they can agree to bring their technologies close together, it will help lower the eventual cost to consumers who want a phone supporting both versions.
Meanwhile, the TDMA camp welcomed the ITU decision, since it will help preserve their viability in the future wireless marketplace.
"We've felt very strongly all along that they should let the marketplace decide, and not let the ITU pick one standard and force that on the world," said Chris Pearson, marketing vice president for the Universal Wireless Communications Consortium, a group of TDMA companies.
Third-generation wireless technology, commonly referred to as 3G, will allow consumers to add high-speed Internet connections and other new services to existing voice transmissions. Carriers expect to have some phones supporting the new generation of technology as soon as next year.