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Sprint Nextel and Verizon jury trials have Vonage on the brink

Patent defeat wounds Vonage further

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Sprint has won a second jury trial over patent infringement against US VoIP service Vonage, in what is an echo of the defeat inflicted earlier by Verizon.

The patent numbers used in the Sprint Nextel case versus Vonage could all be about the same patent, the process of mapping a narrowband message, for instance a PSTN network, to packet based networks. This is the same kind of territory the Verizon patents came from and it's all about connecting VoIP to the PSTN.

The Verizon patents were about handoffs from switched circuits to VoIP and funnily enough that's just what the Sprint patents are all about, except in every case they talk solely about translation into Asynchronous Transfer Mode. The Verizon stuff also dealt with issues relating to how a call is billed or authorised when it comes from a VoIP network to a switched circuit system.

What is interesting is that Vonage uses standard off the shelf Soft Switches supplied by companies that have been operating in the area for years and which for the most part have patent sharing agreements with these companies, but these are not under suit. The technology that Vonage uses is not its own, but is basic VoIP best practice among suppliers.

Neither case is about any of the SIP patents, because these are held largely by AT&T, which it rightly declared when setting the SIP standard. SIP or session initiation protocol is used at the core of the vast majority of VoIP implementations and is an IETF standard. It will also be used at the core of future IMS architectures and although there may be royalties payable by equipment makers, that’s all part and parcel of the VoIP community going forwards.

While we are not telecoms engineers, it seems to us that what is at stake here is that the US telcos believe that VoIP as such is not the issue. What is the issue is connecting VoIP systems to their older PSTN networks. Once an obvious and simple mapping appears between the two systems and it is patented, it shuts the door on the entire VoIP industry. So those patents were applied for and awarded with the sole intention of keeping VoIP networks OUT of PSTN connectivity.

This leads us to the view that a Supreme Court Appeal has to reverse these decisions, and that the US Federal Communication Commission needs to step in and make it clear that Telcos cannot expect to rule the roost on connectivity to their networks through the backdoor of dubious patents.

The Sprint case talks about Joe Christie, an employee at Sprint’s Advanced Technology Laboratory coming up with most of the Sprint patents. Christie died in 1996 says the court transcript, and yet most of the filings in his name are filed after that date.

Patent number 6,473,429 was filed in 1999 and refers to connecting Asynchronous Transfer Mode to a circuit switched architecture, patent number 6,665,294 was filed in 2002 and refers to connecting Asynchronous Transfer Mode to a circuit switched architecture. Patent number 6,298,064 was filed in 2000. Guess what it referred to?

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