Steven SchwankertBy Steven Schwankert
Just when you thought He was gone, just when you thought you were rid of Him, The Grouch is back. He's the Ozzy Osbourne of China tech writing: every tour is His farewell tour until the next one.

That doesn't mean anything's changed. Technology and the world at large are still happy to embrace mediocrity. That will never change. But since the fine folks at China Tech News are still free, and those uppity people at that KFC place or whatever it's called where the Grouch used to write actually want money for their newsletter now, the Grouch thought he'd make a new home here from which to cast dispersion on everyone else.

So let's get down to it. The Grouch, early adopter that he is, went out last week and bought a Xiao Ling Tong (for this article, XLT) phone. For those of you who have been joining Osama in the cave complex for the opening part of the new millennium, kick yourself in the ass a few times for not having bought shares in a company called UT Starcom about two years ago.

In brief: UT Starcom and various provincial Chinese telecom entities have helped carve out a niche known as the wireless local loop. It's like carrying your home phone with you all around town. It's not a true mobile phone because it only works in your home city. It also only permits text messaging to other XLT users, not to mobile phones using China Mobile or China Unicom.

What's attractive about the service is that it's cheap, and in this market, cheap always wins. In Beijing, China Netcom operates the service for 70 CNY per month. That includes unlimited calling to local numbers. Also, XLT billing is one-way, so instead of the receiver also being charged for calls, the way a mobile phone is, an XLT user can talk as long as they want without paying a fen.

The downside is that half the calls the Grouch makes drop out, cut off, or are never completed. So that part kinda sucks. But people in this market love that shit. They're more than happy to scream into their phone so that mom in Anhui can hear them, and everybody in this country talks too loud anyway. But like many things, it will probably improve over the course of the Grouch's two-year contract. Regardless, farmers everywhere will be snapping it up, followed by movie stars, who will then have one more phone they never answer. Besides, it enhances their image of down-market chic. Too bad the phones cost less than 1000 CNY each. UT Starcom should come out with a diamond-encrusted, 24k gold phone for about 5000 CNY to use with the 70 CNY per month service. That will guarantee massive penetration and ridiculous success. Anyway, in the continuing race that is life, the Grouch had one first, so He wins again.

What was the Grouch saying about things improving? Well, not so fast. Look for signs of the CDMA rebellion beginning. One of the Grouch's many wives officially pitched her 133 phone and went back to GSM yesterday. It was only a matter of time before this happened. One of the engineers working on the network told me, "this is the worst network I've ever worked on, and China Unicom is the worst telecom I've ever worked with." Maybe the CDMA reception in Silicon Hutong is clear, but it doesn't seem to be anywhere else, not in Beijing at least. For 70 CNY per month, people are willing to put up with nonsense like drop-outs and unconnected calls. For 330 CNY per month, cute little Samsung flip-phone or not, people have expectations.

As a Man of the People in the Maoist sense, the Grouch has a Christmas gift for all of you: The 2003 Grouch Awards. Heading into their fourth year, it's less of a spectacle than the Oscars (we had trouble negotiating the TV rights this year) the Grouch dons his red suit and black boots and liberally dispenses both Playstation 2s and coal to the unsuspecting and the underprivileged, the naughty and the nice. Look for that in two weeks, exclusively here on China Tech News, the New Home of The Village Grouch.

About the author:
Steven Schwankert is a former editor of Computerworld Hong Kong, based in Beijing. He can be reached at [email protected]

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