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Vendors, U.S. operators target WiMAX IPR

Cisco, Samsung, Intel and Alcatel Lucent promise open and transparent WiMAX patent licensing

Six vendors and operators have agreed to collectively pool their patents related to WiMAX in an effort to create a transparent intellectual property environment that encourages the WiMAX embedded devices market.

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Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco Systems, Intel and Samsung have joined Clearwire in Sprint in the creation of the Open Patent Alliance (OPA), an initiative designed to supply potential WiMAX licensees with a one-stop shop for intellectual property agreements. The group, however, stopped short of taking control of the patent pool itself. It also isn’t setting a specific royalty rate for the pooled patents; nor is it setting a ceiling or guidelines for how high those rates would be—a step taken by several Long Term Evolution vendors in April.

That group of handset and infrastructure makers—which also included Alcatel-Lucent—agreed that aggregate royalty rates for handsets and devices would not total 10% or higher and rates for laptops would be capped at below $10. Nortel went its own route, publically declaring a royalty rate of 1% for its LTE patent portfolio, though it did not join the LTE patent consortium.

WiMAX and LTE rely on much of the same intellectual property as both use orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) as an air interface and multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) smart antenna technologies. Unlike cellular technologies--where a good deal of intellectual property is held by a few vendors, most notably Qualcomm--the patents pertaining to OFDM and MIMO are dispersed among numerous entities. With that wide dispersion in mind, OPA officials said, the industry needs to both organize those myriad patents into a single entity as well as take advantage the fact that no single company can dominate intellectual property discussions.

Siram Viswanathan, vice president of Intel Capital and general manager of Intel’s WiMAX program, said the OPA wants to avoid the pitfalls of licensing that have dogged the cellular industry. “The predictability of IPR has been somewhat lacking in the cellular industry,” Viswanathan said, leading to court and regulatory board battles across the world over royalty rates and the validity of patents. By keeping the process transparent and fair and bringing as many WiMAX patent holders into the group, Viswanathan said, the OPA can help stimulate the WiMAX ecosystem involving a much greater range of manufacturers than the handful of players that dominate the cellular industry.

In particular, the consortium is aiming at the consumer electronics market, which both the WiMAX and LTE communities hope will enter the mobile space if intellectual property issues are sorted out. “We are big believers in the embedded device model,” said Barry West, Sprint’s chief technology officer and future president of the merged Sprint-Clearwire WiMAX business. “A large number of device manufacturers are key to that model.”

Starting with laptops and then moving to purpose-built WiMAX handhelds, the industry is counting on the makers of everyday electronics gear, such as digital cameras and music players, to begin embedding low-cost WiMAX chips into their devices, creating a market where individual users would maintain multiple connections to the network, not just one. To get those device makers on board though, they need assurances that the royalty rates they pay to embed WiMAX will be low and that there won’t be any intellectual property dust-ups like that between Qualcomm and Broadcom, which led to a ban on Qualcomm 3G chips imported into the U.S.

While the OPA has taken the first steps toward providing some of that certainty and transparency it still has far to go. In order to make its pool of patents meaningful and define a standard royalty rate, the OPA needs to bring all, or at least most, of the intellectual property holders to the table. Device manufacturers may get clear guidance from the OPA members, but they would be forced to negotiate separately with any patent-holders that chose not join.

The OPA’s initial roster only includes a few of the WiMAX patent holders out there, though it does have significant members: Alcatel-Lucent developed the original MIMO technology at Bell Labs. Nortel also claims to big intellectual property player in OFDM and MIMO technology and so far it has chosen to approach the market solo. Qualcomm is another question mark. It is believed to own key patents related to WiMAX stemming from its acquisition of OFDM access technologist Flarion. The same intellectual property that vendors like Nokia and Ericsson are applying to LTE could presumably be applied to WiMAX.

In other WiMAX news, a new chipset maker has entered the 4G space. DesignArt Networks today unveiled a new system-on-a-chip platform architecture supporting both WiMAX and LTE with the added kick of integrating mesh backhaul directly into the design. The chip is designed for femto and picocell deployments in which a portion of the 4G radio’s capacity can be use to create an in-band backhaul link either in a mesh or point-to-point configuration.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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