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September 23, 2007

802.11n Wi-Fi imperiled by patent problems?

When last we visited the upcoming 802.11n standard for Wi-Fi, the IEEE was working slowly on the official standard while manufacturers were rushing out and certifying Draft 2 compatible products. Now The Register reports that there’s a spanner in the gears since some outstanding patents actually threaten the IEEE adoptability of the 802.11n standard.

The IEEE working group developing the 802.11n Wi-Fi is holding urgent meetings this week to discuss a significant threat to the standard from patents held by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Despite requests from the IEEE, CSIRO has failed to promise not to sue anyone for infringement.

The next generation Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n, has been under development for years, and delayed many times. But delays may be of little importance: the realisation that CSIRO holds essential patents, and has failed to provide a Letter of Assurance as required by the IEEE, could prevent the standard ever being finalised.

Letters of Assurance are requested from all parties holding patents which may be applicable to any IEEE standard. Basically they state that the patent owner won’t sue anyone for implementing the standard. A request for such a letter was sent to CSIRO, but according to an internal IEEE memo seen by El Reg, no response has been received.

The CSIRO is Australia’s national science agency, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will contribute their patents for free. This may turn out to be a tempest in a teapot, but one wonders how the standards process got so far along without anyone noting there was a very big problem. I also wonder how long the vendors will keep shipping Draft 2 gear with an overhanging patent liability like this.

Posted at 9:07 pm. Filed under MIMO, Wi-Fi

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