China pushes WAPI in mobile phones

Some mobile phones released in China this year will support the country’s homegrown security protocol for wireless LANs that once fueled a trade dispute with the U.S.

The expected release of the phones suggests the country may end a ban on that capability in mobile devices. That could mean allowing handsets that support both Wi-Fi and the Chinese WLAN standard, but it could also mean only allowing China’s standard.

Motorola is among the firms that will offer 3G (third-generation) handsets supporting the Chinese standard, which is similar to Wi-Fi but uses the China-developed security protocol WAPI (WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure).

Motorola will offer a version of its Motosurf A3100 touchscreen that supports Wi-Fi and China’s WLAN standard around June, Hu Ping, a spokeswoman for the firm, said Friday. Versions of the phone sold elsewhere do not support WAPI, she said.

Chinese firms have also announced a handful of WAPI mobile phones. Chinese handset designer MobileXP this year will release handsets compatible with WAPI and each of the 3G mobile standards being promoted by China’s carriers, a company source said.

The firm has already announced a phone that supports WAPI and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and that is currently going through the state approval process, the source said.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) must approve mobile phones to be sold in China. The agency has not previously allowed phones with WLAN capability.

That is partly because WLAN allows mobile users to get online or to make phone calls without paying for mobile services from one of China’s carriers. But it is also because China wants to support the use of WAPI, an alternative to the Wi-Fi found in many foreign mobile phones, analysts say. China’s apparent move to allow some kind of WLAN in handsets comes just as WAPI phones are being developed.

Vendors that sell handsets with Wi-Fi abroad disable the function for the Chinese market, said Ted Dean, president of telecom research firm BDA.

That has slowed the release of foreign handsets in the country, said Dean. The ban on Wi-Fi in handsets has been one obstacle in Apple’s negotiations with carrier China Unicom on releasing the iPhone in China, analysts say.

China once hoped for global adoption of WAPI, introduced in 2003 as a mandatory WLAN standard for the country. The next year China cancelled plans to require foreign companies to adopt WAPI under pressure from the U.S. government and from IT giants like Intel.

WAPI was later rejected as an international specification by the International Standards Organization, which instead adopted the 802.11i standard developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The vote angered WAPI’s backers and China vowed to continue supporting the standard.

But WAPI is still hardly present in China, where laptop users almost universally use Wi-Fi in coffee shops to surf the Web.

Beijing may hope to change that. This year state-owned carriers China Mobile and China Telecom began requiring that all newly purchased WLAN equipment support WAPI, said Zhang Lulu, vice secretary general of the WAPI Alliance, an industry group promoting the technology.

Local media say the MIIT has started allowing WAPI in handsets in recent weeks, and that the ministry has encouraged handset makers to put WAPI in their devices.

The MIIT did not reply to a request for information.

A government push is likely behind the carriers’ support for WAPI, said Mark Natkin, director of Marbridge Consulting in Beijing.

China’s mobile operators usually choose mature standards unless asked to do otherwise, he said. It is unlikely any of the carriers would have chosen to operate the network based on China’s domestically developed TD-SCDMA (Time Division-Synchronous CDMA) standard unless required to do so, he said.

“I think the same is probably true of WAPI,” Natkin said.

The MIIT chose China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile carrier, to operate China’s TD-SCDMA network when it issued 3G licenses earlier this year. Licenses for the more established CDMA-2000 and WCDMA (Wideband CDMA) standards were given to the firm’s rivals.

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