CSIRO patent threat to 802.11n may be overblown

An alleged patent dispute probably won't stop the 802.11n WLAN standard, according to industry observers.

A patent claim by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation would probably not sink the IEEE 802.11n standard, according to some wireless LAN industry veterans.

The CSIRO claims patents to essential technology in the 802.11n standard and has been asked for assurances on how it will treat the technology, according to a recent report on UK tech news site The Register.

The standards board of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has said approval of 802.11n is at risk unless the organisation gets a response from the CSIRO, the report said.

The CSIRO is no stranger to wireless patent disputes. Earlier this year it won an injunction against Buffalo Technology for infringement of patents it said were part of the IEEE 802.11a and 802.11g standards. The agency also has cases pending against big Wi-Fi players including Intel, HP, Microsoft and 3Com on similar claims. The group has said the industry didn't accept its offer to license the patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory (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 the 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 chipmaker Atheros Communications, who has been involved with the standards process. They don't guarantee the patent holder will never sue anyone who uses the technology or that unanticipated patent claims won't come up later from other parties, he said.

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

IEEE 802.11n, designed to boost wireless LAN speeds to up to 100Mbps with longer range, has been eagerly awaited for years. The Wi-Fi Alliance has begun certifying equipment using the second draft of the standard, a stopgap to help consumers and businesses choose products that may not satisfy enterprises with large deployments. Standardisation 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, 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 the CSIRO could be resolved without seriously holding up the standard, said Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias. Although standards bodies don't like to write specifications that might infringe patent rights, that's not the only criteria they use, he said.

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 802.11n products on the market before a case like this is ever settled," Mathias said. "You can write a cheque and make this all go away. And if that raises the cost of an adapter by US$10, so what?"

Vendors routinely built potential licensing costs into their prices anyway, he said.

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Stephen Lawson

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