Wireless vendor takes on the big guns

A tiny manufacturer of wireless LANs has filed federal lawsuits against some of the network industry giants, charging them with infringing on key wireless patents.

Sunnyvale, Calif. Proxim Inc., with fiscal 2000 revenue of US$107 million, filed the lawsuits March 8 in federal district courts in Massachusetts and Delaware. The suits, seeking damages and an injunction, are against 3Com Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Intersil Corp., SMC Networks Inc., Symbol Technologies Inc. and Wayport Inc. Most are LAN vendors, though Wayport offers wireless LAN access services in places like airports and Intersil creates components and reference designs for wireless LANs.

In addition to the lawsuits, Proxim has asked for an injunction from the International Trade Commission, targeting several foreign vendors selling their products in the U.S. market.

In a carrot-and-stick approach, Proxim is offering these and other wireless LAN vendors a licensing deal, which will let companies use the techniques protected by the Proxim patents.

Proxim patents deal with certain techniques in what’s called direct sequence wireless networking. In direct sequence, a signal is spread over a broad frequency range, which lets the radio technology support a large number of transmissions over a given range of frequencies. A different approach to this spread spectrum modulation is frequency hopping, which transmits short bursts of information over specific frequencies to minimize interference.

In particular, Proxim executives say, the patents cover techniques for high data rates and increased transmission range.

Proxim claims the intellectual property covered by the patents are used in, among other things, the newest wireless LAN products that implement the IEE 802.11b and 802.11 direct sequence standards, which account for the fastest-growing segments of the wireless market. The products have a throughput ranging from 1M to 11M bps on the 2.4 GHz bandwidth.

Proxim CEO David King said last week that the company has been researching the issue of protecting its intellectual property for over a year. As far back as 1996, he said, Proxim formally notified the IEEE 802.11 committee about the existence of the patents.

He denied Proxim was seeking to “double-tax” the chain of products – that is, reap licensing fees from the device builders and then from the service providers using the devices. “We’ll break down the value chain, to separate product royalties from service royalties,” he said. “We’ll have to work this out, or litigate this, with the various parties.”

King declined to say how long he thought the process would take, since the courts’ actions are based on the availability and schedules of judges and the court calendars.