Australia's CSIRO hits U.S. carriers on WLAN patents

The agency sued Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile for allegedly selling WLAN gear that infringed its patent

The Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) is suing three of the largest U.S. mobile operators, charging they infringed a patent by selling wireless LAN products.

CSIRO last year settled with 14 wireless LAN vendors, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, after suing them in 2005 over the same patent. The current lawsuits, filed in late February in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Division of Texas, target AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA.

CSIRO is a government-funded research institute with facilities all over Australia. It claims ownership of U.S. Patent No. 5,487,069, issued in 1996, entitled "Wireless LAN," which it claims covers fundamental aspects of the IEEE 802.11a,b,g and n standards. In the three lawsuits filed in February, CSIRO is going after companies that are primarily sellers rather than makers of Wi-Fi products.

In three separate complaints, CSIRO alleges each mobile operator is knowingly infringing the patent because it informed them about the infringement last year. The agency is seeking unspecified damages as well as injunctions to stop the carriers from selling infringing products. CSIRO wants a jury to hear the case. One exception to the complaints is that the allegedly infringing products don't include those made with Intel chips. Intel was one of the companies that settled with CSIRO last year.

Verizon issued an answer to CSIRO's complaint last week in which it denied that the patent was "duly and legally issued for inventions" and that it had infringed "any valid enforceable claim" of the patent. T-Mobile also answered the suit, denying it has infringed the patent and that CSIRO has full ownership of it. As of last week, AT&T had not filed an answer to the complaint. All three carriers declined to comment on the case.

At the time of its 2005 lawsuit, CSIRO said it had offered to license the technology to vendors on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms but was turned down. Its legal actions at one point raised concerns over completion of the IEEE 802.11n standard. The standards board of the IEEE said in 2007 that the approval of 802.11n was at risk because CSIRO hadn't provided a requested form letter in which contributors to a standard state how they will license their technology. The 802.11n standard was approved in September 2009.

AT&T and Verizon are the largest mobile operators in the U.S., and T-Mobile is the fourth-largest. All three sell smartphones equipped with Wi-Fi and include Wi-Fi hotspots as part of their wireless data offerings. In 2007, T-Mobile provided free Wi-Fi routers through its hotspot@home service, which let subscribers make unlimited calls via Wi-Fi with T-Mobile phones that have the technology. Other companies that settled with CSIRO last year included Netgear, Toshiba, 3Com, Nintendo, D-Link and Buffalo Technologies.

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