Ratifying 802.11n, the much acclaimed standard expected to redefine wireless networking, is somewhat ambiguous at this time. According to this September 21, 2007, Register article, the IEEE working group -- responsible for development of the 802.11n standard -- is meeting with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) to garner a Letter of Assurance. The legal document states that CSIRO -- owner of several patents associated with the 802.11n standard -- will not sue third parties who are developing products based on 802.11n. CSIRO's trump card is US Patent 5487069, which defines multi-path transmission techniques, notably a major component of 802.11n.
Letter of Assurance is essential
What makes the Letter of Assurance essential is that CSIRO is already suing several companies that have developed prerelease 802.11n equipment; one such example is the case against Buffalo Technology. In that particular case, CSIRO can claim some initial success, but the whole subject of a Nonpracticing Entity gaining a permanent injunction is very nebulous and better discussed in this Patently (patent law) blog. Still, the precedence set in the case against Buffalo Technology gives CSIRO a very strong bargaining position, at least in U.S. courts.
No response from CSIRO
As of this writing, there has been no response from CSIRO as to its intentions, and it is quite clear that the standard will not be approved without a Letter of Assurance, as mentioned in an internal memo sent from the Standards Board to 802.11 chairperson Stuart Kerry:
"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."
This issue needs to get resolved quickly, as Wi-Fi equipment makers may decide to stop development and manufacture of 802.11n-related devices, fearing the threat of lawsuits. Hopefully, the powers that be realize slowing or stopping the advancement of Wi-Fi technology would be bad for anyone.
Michael Kassner is currently a systems manager for an international company. Together with his son, he runs MKassner Net, a small IT publication consultancy.