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Wireless Showdown Brewing in Latin America

A battle over mobile phone standards is emerging in Central and South America, one that pits CDMA2000 against GSM .

The two wireless platforms have historically been broken down along geographic lines. Europe remains a GSM stronghold, while the United States is firmly rooted in CDMA and TDMA technology. Asia has gotten a blitz of CDMA technology courtesy of San Diego-based wireless giant QUALCOMM , but has been wavering between that and GSM.

However, several companies such as Ericsson , Nortel and AT&T Wireless have made their presence known in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Nicaragua hoping to dominate the region and become the king of mobile telephony - commonly known as 3G.

Already AT&T Wireless, Telecom Personal (Argentina) and Telcel (Mexico) have begun working together to launch GSM networks that will work alongside their TDMA networks.

Like many of the mobile providers, Ericsson is playing both sides.

On Wednesday, PCS Digital said it has selected Ericsson as the sole supplier of equipment and services for deployment of a GSM/GPRS 1900 MHz network in Nicaragua. The network will have nation-wide coverage. PCS Digital Nicaragua is part of the group America Movil, which also includes Telgua (Guatemala) and Telcel, among others.

In a separate announcement, Ericsson said it had inked a deal with Vesper (Brazil) to supply a CDMA2000 1xEV-DO overlay system in Rio de Janeiro. Vesper turned around and also announced a deal with Nortel to be its sole supplier of its CDMA2000 1xEV-DO (Data Optimized) network. The network is slated for its commercial launch in December of 2002.

Nortel Networks is currently deploying CDMA2000 1X technologies with customers like BellSouth, SMARTCOM PCS and SERCOM (Telgua) in Latin America. Nortel Networks and Verizon Wireless are currently conducting CDMA2000 1xEV-DO wireless network trials in San Diego.

The maneuvers are significant because Latin America is becoming a hotbed of wireless growth.

EMC's World Cellular Review 2000-2005 predicts by the end of 2006, there will be around 120 million users of GSM/GPRS in the Americas. Quite a feat considering before AT&T Wireless brought in GSM in 2000, there were only an estimated 11.2 million subscribers in Latin America.

"Nicaragua is experiencing significant development in telecommunications. There are now more operators, more coverage and many more services," said Jorge Aguiar, Vice President of Sales and New Business of Ericsson for the America Movil account.

Research group also IDC predicts the number of cellular subscribers in Latin America will grow to 143 million while the number of mobile data subscribers will jump to more than 71 million users by 2004.

According to a study by The Strategis Group, wireless Internet services are expected to grow from 1.4 million subscribers in 2000 to more than 47 million in 2007. The study, "Latin America Wireless Internet Markets," analyzes the region's six largest marketsArgentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela for many of the most common wireless Internet technologies.

"Operators must provide a wide array of handsets to satisfy all market needs for wireless data, from basic affordable handsets to advanced, more expensive handsets with all the bells and whistles," said Carlos Guzman, Latin American analyst with The Strategis Group.

Today's primary technologies - marketed as 3G - are CDMA2000 1XRTT and EDGE. Both can be considered "tweeners" at best. While offering some enhanced data services, like e-mail and some downloading, both are essentially jacked up voice technologies delivering anywhere between 40-60 Kbps data speeds; considered by many 2.5G or 2.75G offerings, since they don't fall under 3G's 2 Mbps definition.

"Vesper has an aggressive plan to roll out 3G data services across multiple Brazilian markets and we are committed to supporting them with our leading products and expertise in 3G services and applications" said Ake Persson, president of Ericsson Mobile Systems CDMA.

But despite the quick rise of CDMA, market research company Intex Management Services (IMS) says GSM will remain the dominant cellular technology worldwide for the foreseeable future. It is estimated that at the end of 2001, more than 641 million of the world's cellular phone users had subscribed to GSM, including its 2.5G format. A figure that translates to more than 60 percent of the world's cellular phone subscriber base.