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Patent battles brew in Wi-Fi industry

Posted: 26 Jun 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:WLAN? Wi-Fi patent? 802.11 standard?

A U.S. federal court's injunction against Japanese WLAN equipment vendor Buffalo Technology in its patent fight with an Australian science agency could have broad implications for the Wi-Fi industry.

Judge Leonard Davis of the U.S. Eastern District Court of Texas found June 15 that Buffalo violates the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's (CSIRO) 1996 patent underlying 802.11a/g technologythe core of all corporate WLANs and public Wi-Fi networks. Davis issued an injunction blocking Buffalo from selling WLAN products until it has a license agreement with CSIRO.

Buffalo is likely to appeal the ruling and ask the court for a stay of the injunction. But if the ruling stands, Davis' decision could force makers of Wi-Fi-based productsfrom laptops to smart phones to semiconductors to game consolesto pay hefty licensing fees to CSIRO, an Australian federal agency akin to the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Recognizing the CSIRO patent as a threat, a group of major tech companies that includes Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Intel filed lawsuits in May 2005 to have the CSIRO patent invalidated, which the latter countersued. In all, CSIRO has three other cases challenging Wi-Fi use by Belkin, Dell, D-Link, Fujitsu, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Netgear, 3Com, Toshiba and others. Notably absent is Cisco Systems, which pays royalties to CSIRO from its acquisition in 2001 of Radiata, a company formed by CSIRO.

The technology in question forms the guts of Wi-Fi, or the 802.11 standards. In 1999, the IEEE finalized the 802.11a standard, and four years later 802.11g. Those standards sparked a multibillion-dollar industry for office and home wireless networks and public hotspots. Almost 300 million devices have been sold the last four years.

Davis wrote that a research institution like CSIRO could suffer irreparable harm in terms of "lost opportunities" for future R&D programs. Davis has ordered mediation, to be completed by November, in the three other pending suits. CSIRO originally offered license rates starting at $4 per unit and going down to $1.80 per unit depending on volume, says Dan Furniss, of Townsend and Townsend and Crew, which represents CSIRO. "They're not looking for a dime a unit, that's for sure," says Furniss.

Furniss says CSIRO is open to a settlementwhile also noting that the court has now bolstered the validity of the Australian agency's claims.

- Richard Martin

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