tdscdma.jpgDoes the mobile telecommunications industry need another 3G conference? Probably not. This one is in Beijing, however, and as China still does not have any commercial 3G networks running, the organisers feel there is still much to talk about.

Next month, the 7th Annual China 3G Mobile International Summit takes place and that “7th” at the front speaks legions about the glacial slow progress in awarding 3G licences in China.

Nevertheless, change is in the air.

Trials of China's preferred 3G standard, called TD-SCDMA, have been running in three cities this spring and optimists believe that if — and its a big if — these trials show that TD-SCDMA is ready for prime time, then the government could award the first licences could before the year's end.

Mind you, one western equipment supplier last year confidently expected licences to be awarded in early 2006. Two years ago, the watershed year was going to be 2005…

TD-SCDMA has never been used in a commercial network unlike W-CDMA and CDMA2000, the other two 3G standards, which had a combined 79m users at the end of March.

The Chinese government is keen to promote TD-SCDMA as a home-grown alternative to the two existing standards. That way, local manufacturers do not have to pay licence fees to western companies, primarily Qualcomm, which owns many of key patents relating to the CDMA technology.

In 1999, the ITU selected CDMA selected as the primary technology for 3G wireless systems. That means that even if manufacturers of W-CDMA or CDMA2000 products do not use Qualcomm's 3G technology, they must still pay it royalties to use the underlying CDMA patents.

Beijing feels this is unfair. Hence it has encouraged — some would say cajoled — China's domestic telecoms industry to develop TD-SCDMA as a royalty-free alternative.

Western equipment manufacturers, keen to do business in China, publicly support the TD-SCDMA standard, although privately they complain about the additional expense and delay that China's not-invented-here syndrome has brought them. Siemens, for example, has invested more than €170m in developing the TD-SCDMA standard since 1998.

France Telecom also supports TD-SCDMA and it recently joined the TD-SCDMA Forum — the first western mobile operator to do so. That might seem perverse, given that Orange, FT's mobile arm, is using W-CDMA for its European 3G networks.

Nevertheless, FT believes TD-SCDMA might have a role to play in Europe. Thats because it uses a different frequency band to W-CDMA and so could be used to add 3G capacity in areas where the W-CDMA frequency band is saturated.

The western telecoms industry is making great efforts to woo China's government officials and mobile operators as there is much at stake — more than $10bn in 3G equipment orders during the next three years, according to Ericsson.

So, even if foreigner visitors to next month's conference leave no wiser than before about the long-awaited calendar for 3G licences, you can guarantee it will not be for want of trying.