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Motorola's switch problem

Posted: 16 Jun 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Motorola? mobile switch? circuit switching? wireless networks? wireless infrastructure?

Developing its own switch would be a formidable engineering task, but Motorola is equipped to do so more than any other company in the world, notes Senior Technology Editor Majeed Ahmad Kamran.

Majeed Ahmad Kamran is senior technology editor of Electronic Engineering Times ? Asia.
Motorola is looking for a wireless infrastructure partner, again. The company president and COO, Edward Breen, recently said Motorola would like to be partnered closer to somebody that has the switch or the core of the network.

Motorola has been here before a few times. Such arrangements ended up as failures because mobile operators preferred to deal directly with people from the parent companies rather than with the workforce of the joint venture. Another reason was the different technological visions of the cellular market.

Though not a wireless pure-play, the importance of a switch can hardly be underestimated in the bigger scheme of things. As we move deeper into the digital wireless arena, size of cells would be much smaller and the switch would have to work harder to hand off more calls as users moved across cells. Moreover, providing both systems (switch pairing with radio transmission equipment) and handsets brings strategic advantages to manufacturers and operators alike. The GSM experience has clearly demonstrated how the two sides of business provide mutual support.

Motorola's lack of switch gave its archrivalsEricsson and Nokiaenormous leverage in dealing with the primary customers: wireless operators. Nokia used to resell telephone switching systems from Alcatel and Siemens during the 1970s, when it was still a messy electronics conglomerate. But then it managed to develop its own switch, and so did Ericsson. So how come Motorola, despite its engineering excellence, never managed to have its own switching system? Probably, it never wanted to.

At a time when the wireless world was going to enter the economy-of-scale era for the first time, Motorola was draining its energies into a pipe dream the world came to know as Iridium. Moreover, to fulfill the role of a wireless bellwether, the company expanded its product portfolio to all cellular technologies: AMPS, CDMA, GSM and TDMA. There was hardly time to look for a new switch.

Whenever pressure intensified from the investment community, Motorola just resorted to easy fixes. In 1984, it first paired with Texas-based DSC Communications, but discontinued the joint venture after six years when many of its customers complained about poor switching capabilities. In the early 1990s, the Schaumberg, Illinois wireless trailblazer entered into collaborative pacts with Nortel Networks and Siemens to jointly develop a system combining Motorola's base stations with its partner's digital switch.

While Nortel and Siemens are usual suspects for a potential match, Motorola has been in talks with Lucent Technologies as well. But even if the Chicago-based firm succeeds in clinching a deal, it may only prove a cushion choice. It is about the time that Motorola should see through this matter once for all if it wants to remain an enviable player in the wireless game. Developing its own switch would be a formidable engineering task, but Motorola, one of the last vertically integrated electronics giants, is equipped to do so more than any other company in the world.

Industry experts may argue about the timing of such a move as circuit switching, which lies at the heart of the present switch fabric, is facing a slow death at the hands of Internet-backed IP architecture. But that can be an impediment as well as an opportunity to start over with a clean slate. A number of promising startups are pursuing innovative platforms based on hybrid circuit/packet switching models. It is a good time for bargain hunting, too.

? Majeed Ahmad Kamran

Senior Technology Editor

Electronic Engineering Times ? Asia

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