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Next generation Wi-Fi mired in patent fears

802.11n standard 'at serious risk'

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Exclusive 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.

This means that anyone who implements, or is implementing, 802.11n is at risk of being sued by CSIRO, and that the standard is very unlikely to be approved. As the internal memo, addressed to 802.11 Chair Stuart J Kerry, makes clear:

"The IEEE-SA Standards Board will not make any final determination without first hearing your explanation of why the 802.11 working group is proposing IEEE-SA SASB approval of a draft standard without a response to a pending request for an [Letter of Assurance] for a known potentially Essential Patent Claim, but any standard submitted on that state of facts is at serious risk of not being approved."

802.11n promises to deliver a fivefold increase in speed, and double the range of 802.11g. Indeed in many cases it's already delivering something approximating that, as pre-standard kit has been available for almost a year. In May the Wi-Fi Alliance got so bored waiting for the IEEE to complete the standard that they started certifying kit as conforming to the draft, even though the final version isn't expected until 2008.

Neither CSIRO nor the IEEE could be reached for comment, though the IEEE have promised to get back to us real soon with an update.

Equipment vendors already selling 802.11n kit could easily be infringing CSIRO's patents, and if no standard is forthcoming then the development process of Wi-Fi, already stalling, could grind to a halt. ®

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