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Qualcomm IP battle hots up

GSM patent attack targets Nokia

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The intellectual property battle between Qualcomm and leading competitors and hand set makers has been stepped up a significant notch, with the US chipmaker suing Nokia, not over its core CDMA technology but over claimed patents for data over GSM. This has raised speculation that Qualcomm is gearing up for a sweeping claim directed at the whole GSM industry, which could shift the balance of power in mobile intellectual property again and could have a negative effect on the creation of low cost GSM devices for emerging economies.

Given that Qualcomm, in order to preserve and grow its most important revenue stream, chips, will almost certainly have to rework its approach to its patent revenue, the aim is probably to spread its royalties base wider, to compensate for possible lowering of the fees it can charge for CDMA technologies in future. The WiMAX world waits to see whether the company has managed to secure—or will acquire in future—any technology that could have claims to contain fundamental patents in 802.16. Behind the legal brinkmanship, however, there are other ways that Qualcomm is seeking to broaden its base and position itself for a future, years away, when CDMA-based networks are on the decline.

Most important are the platforms it can divorce from CDMA and which appeal to the multimedia ambitions of the operators—the MediaFLO mobile television system and the Brew content framework, in particular. Qualcomm has finally achieved a long held aim of penetrating the European cellco community with a deal with O2 for a key component of Brew, the UIone user interface technology.

Qualcomm is at the heart of the biggest intellectual property war in wireless since the fights over 3G standards and its own settlement with Ericsson. Engaged in legal battles with Broadcom in the US over patents and alleged anti-competitive practises, and now facing complaints to the European Union by six vendors, Qualcomm has upped the ante by suing Nokia, claiming the Finnish giant infringes 12 of its patents in its advanced GSM handsets.

But while Qualcomm goes on the offensive to defend its intellectual property base, the fate of its far more commercially significant products business will be decided by vendors and operators far more than by regulators. Here the outcome is far from clear – for instance, just as European vendors are mobilizing the campaign to cut Qualcomm down to size in 3G, the chipmaker has won a software contract with UK-based operator O2 that is its first major breakthrough for its strategy to break into the closed European territory.

The GSM claims

Taking the fight out of Qualcomm’s core technology base, CDMA, into GSM, a platform into which it originally had no input, is stunningly aggressive. The complaints against Nokia echo some GSM-related patent suits included in the tit-for-tat war with Broadcom in the US courts, and have raised fears that Qualcomm is gearing up for a general royalties claim against all makers of GSM handsets or chips.

Qualcomm claims it has fundamental patents that are infringed by the methods that modern handsets use to add data capabilities to GSM, although so far it says its issues are specific to Nokia and Broadcom. Specifically, Qualcomm says that some Nokia GSM/GPRS phones sold in the US infringe 11 of its patents and one belonging to a subsidiary, all of them concerned with enhanced wireless internet access and data transmission over GSM networks.

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