ZTE gets scrappy in U.S. telecom market

ZTE gets scrappy in U.S. telecom market

Chinese telecommunications vendor ZTE is diving into the U.S. market as a startup.

ZTE is one of China's biggest telecommunications equipment vendors, but for its debut in the U.S. it's playing the underdog.

The maker of 3G (third-generation) mobile handsets and networks has about 30,000 employees and works with carriers across most of the world. In its home market, ZTE holds more than 30 percent of the wireless infrastructure market, supplying gear to China Netcom Group (Hong Kong), China Unicom and other operators, according to Lance Cornish, senior director of wireless business development at ZTE USA.

It's a common mistake for large vendors just entering a new market to act like big players there and assume local buyers know who they are, Cornish said. ZTE is approaching the U.S. market like a startup, he said in an interview at the CTIA Wireless trade show in Las Vegas last week, where ZTE was appearing for the first time.

Chinese rival Huawei Technologies has already entered the U.S. market. The growing presence of the two Chinese vendors around the world, pressuring existing vendors on price, has been seen as one factor that drove Lucent Technologies and Alcatel into their recently announced merger.

ZTE's greatest strength is in the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) world, which is now migrating toward high-speed EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) technology, Cornish said. The biggest U.S. CDMA carriers are already well into their deployment of EV-DO, so ZTE is aiming at second-tier and third-tier operators such as Alltel Corp. and Leap Wireless International Inc., he said.

However, the company is aiming higher with its handsets, according to Jack Yang, executive vice president of sales and marketing. ZTE has talked with both Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless about those products, he said. ZTE already supplies handsets to major operators including Hutchison 3 Group in Europe.

Cost is a key differentiator for ZTE, though it's not the cost of Chinese manufacturing, Yang said. Almost all wireless vendors are making their products in China, but ZTE has an ongoing cost advantage because it does most of its development there, he said.

However, the company has been branching out in its North American entry strategy over the past 18 months. In addition to offices in Dallas and Manalapan, New Jersey, ZTE now has a global research and development center in San Diego, the home of CDMA pioneer Qualcomm Inc.

ZTE has gained traction with GOTA (Global Open Trunking Architecture), a push-to-talk (PTT) system for CDMA 1x, the network technology used for voice throughout the CDMA world, Cornish said. Mobile operators of all stripes are rolling out "walkie-talkie" offerings inspired by the success of PTT services that Nextel has provided for years over its iDEN network.

GOTA nearly matches the low latency of iDEN PTT and is adequate for public safety and other uses, Cornish said. It is a software-only system that ZTE is selling itself as well as licensing to other makers of base stations and handsets. GOTA services are now available from more than 20 operators worldwide, including operators in Norway, Indonesia, Russia and Haiti, in addition to China. The technology has more than 1 million customers, Cornish said.

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