Patent threat to 802.11n may be overblown

A patent claim by an Australian research organization would probably not sink the IEEE 802.11n standard, according to some wireless LAN industry veterans.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) claims to have patents to essential technology in the standard and has been asked for assurances about how it will treat the technology, according to a recent report in The Register. The standards board of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) has said approval of 802.11n is at risk unless the organization gets a response from CSIRO, the report said.

CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, is no stranger to wireless patent disputes. Earlier this year, it won an injunction against Buffalo Technology (U.S.A.) Inc. for infringement of patents it said are part of the IEEE 802.11a and 802.11g standards. The agency also has cases pending on similar claims against big Wi-Fi players including Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp. and 3Com Corp. The group has said the industry didn't accept its offer to license the patents on reasonable and nondiscriminatory, or RAND, terms.

The IEEE sent CSIRO a customary request for a Letter of Assurance regarding 802.11n, according to The Register. In this type of letter, a company with patents that may be part of a standard says whether it will license its technology free or at a reasonable rate, won't enforce its patents, or won't license the technology, among other things. Neither CSIRO nor the IEEE could provide statements about the letter or a response in time for this article.

Letters of Assurance are normally requested from companies that have been involved in drafting a standard, according to Bill McFarland, chief technology officer of chip maker Atheros Communications Inc., who has been involved with the standards process. They don't guarantee the patent holder will never sue anyone who uses the technology, nor that unanticipated patent claims won't come up later from other parties, he said.

"I don't know why [the IEEE] would suddenly decide in this particular case that not having a letter is reason enough to hold up with moving forward with the standard," McFarland said.

IEEE 802.11n, designed to boost wireless LAN speeds to more than 100Mbit/sec. with longer range, has been eagerly awaited for years as it traverses a winding path to approval. The Wi-Fi Alliance has begun certifying equipment using the second draft of the standard in progress, a stopgap measure that should help consumers and small businesses choose products but may not satisfy enterprises that need to roll out and maintain large deployments. Standardization ensures gear from different vendors will work together.

Last week, the 802.11n task group kicked off the process of writing and voting on a third draft that the group hopes to turn into the final standard, Atheros' McFarland said. Although major changes are unlikely, there are still many steps to go, and the 802.11 working group probably won't approve the standard until next July, he added.

The issue with CSIRO could almost certainly be resolved without significantly holding up the standard, said Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias, who wasn't commenting on the specifics of this issue. Although standards bodies don't like to write specifications that might infringe patent rights, that's not the only criteria they use, he said.

In any case, it wouldn't be in CSIRO's interest to have 802.11n fail, because the standard can create a bigger market and lead to more licensing revenue, he said. Even if CSIRO ended up suing 802.11n vendors, the new gear would come to market first.

"There will be 100 million 11n products on the market before a case like this is ever settled," Mathias said. "You can write a check and make this all go away ... and if that raises the cost of an adapter by $10, so what?" Vendors routinely build potential licensing costs into their prices anyway, he said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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