Handset Makers Play a Maddening Game of Self-Sabotage

Opinion: The makers of 3G handsets have reportedly tweaked conformance tests so their products pass on paper, but fail once they reach users' hands.

Why are 3G handsets and data cards so awful?

Answer: because the handset makers are deliberately making it impossible to show how bad they are, by making the tests meaningless.

Its easy to understand why a 2-year-old toddler might throw mud onto the breakfast plate before trying to eat it.

Its rather harder to understand why a large, successful corporation would sabotage its own products—but thats what is happening in 3G handsets.

Heres the problem, according to the people who test the things—Spirent: "The big phone companies have watered down conformance tests to make them easier to pass, and have optimized their products to pass conformance tests."

The result, they say, is exactly what you would expect: the products pass the tests, but fail in the field.

To understand in detail why this has happened, you probably need to know more about how CDMA and Wideband CDMA technology works than I can honestly claim to know myself.

But I can give you the gist: with WCDMA, the number of users you can have connected to a single cell is not fixed, the way it is with GSM.

Instead, the more users you have, the more the background noise rises. To get around this, you need to boost the power of the signals, both from the terminal, and from the base station. Easy!

And then your customers all complain, because their batteries die before they can get home to recharge them.

Its starting to look, ironically, as if the problem will be tackled in the United States before it is treated seriously in Europe.

We all expected WCDMA to take off in the European Community first; the plan indeed was to have it as the de facto standard by now, and to be moving into Phase 2, with HSDPA (high-speed download packet access)—but in fact, this isnt what is happening.

Spirent is a very good oracle on the future of this technology, because it makes the test gear; sales of test gear predict sales of the products which are tested.

Thus it was, four years ago, that I was able to stand up on a podium and, using my most confidently authoritative voice, predict that we would see no massive 3G rollout before 2006. It was obvious; Spirent was not selling the equipment needed for testing the things.

Next Page: States take the initiative.