A patent fight between U.S. mobile-phone chip-makers Qualcomm and Broadcom threatens to have negative implications on the nation's 911 system.

Last month, the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled to ban the import into the U.S. of new models of 3G phones using chips made by Qualcomm, concluding those chipsets infringe on patents held by Broadcom. The patents cover power management features in certain 3G wireless phones.

The order allows companies to continue importing phones that contain the questionable chipsets, as long as the models are already on the market. But no new phones that contain the chips can be brought into the U.S. The ban officially began on June 7 and bans new handset models containing Qualcomm's wideband-CDMA or CDMA2000 1x EV-DO chipsets.

That poses a problem for the country's 911 system. Qualcomm's new 3G chipsets not only offer GPS advances for public safety but solve a critical flaw found in Qualcomm-enabled older handsets known as voice blanking. Voice blanking sometimes occurs when the transmission of location coordinates from the mobile phones to the 911 center disrupts the voice channel between the caller and the 911 dispatcher. This can result in the caller and the call taker hearing nothing but silence as the mobile phone's position is transmitted to the public-safety answering point (PSAP). Because the location process can take about 5 to 10 seconds after the voice call is delivered to 911, callers frequently believe they have lost connection with the PSAP and hang up. When they call back, they experience the same problem.

“The chipset included with the new 3G technologies solves this problem and is the only solution to the issue according to the wireless industry,” said Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “Thus, the importation ban by the ITC retards the resolution of the voice blanking problem.”

There are ancillary effects, according to NENA and APCO, which have not taken a position on the specific patent infringement spat between Qualcomm and Broadcom. The ITC ruling prevents the import of mobile phones with increased processing speeds that can more accurately locate wireless 911 calls from reaching consumers. Moreover, the order negatively impacts the ability of first responders to effectively receive and share information in the field to provide an effective emergency response.

Halley has found it particularly counterproductive that the FCC is seeking comments on how to make wireless 911 technology more accurate while the ITC is reducing the ability of consumers to obtain handsets capable of more accurately pinpointing 911 callers.

APCO President Wanda McCarley has expressed concern that many public-safety entities are making significant investments in CDMA-based technologies for public-safety broadband services in the 700 MHz band but won't have access to 3G devices.

Qualcomm's strategy for overcoming the situation has been two-fold. In a conference call with analysts and media last month, Qualcomm executives said they will vigorously fight the order. The firm has already filed an appeal in federal court, and it is asking for a presidential veto of the ITC decision.

“The way for the industry, public safety and end users to move forward with certainty is for the president to veto this order,” Qualcomm spokeswoman Christine Trimble said in a statement released to MRT.

Negotiations with Broadcom are impossible, Qualcomm general counsel Louis Lupin said last month, because “it has been the case since day one of our discussions that what they are seeking are terms that would be destructive to our business model.”

White House vetoes of ITC orders are rare, with the last such presidential veto of an ITC decision coming more than two decades ago. The White House has 60 days from June 7 to act on the request for a veto. Lupin said that he expects action from the federal appeals court within “a timeframe on the order of days or weeks, as opposed to months.”

According to Stifel Nicolaus, a law firm that specializes in telecom, media and technology regulation, Qualcomm's request for a veto has “a good chance,” and the firm believes a veto would come at the end of the 60-day period.

There also is the possibility of a workaround solution. Sanjay Jha, chief operating officer and president of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies Group, said last month the firm is looking for opportunities to design and implement new software but any solution is subject to operator acceptance and could take as long as 18 months.


May 2005

Broadcom files a complaint with the ITC, alleging Qualcomm engaged in unfair trade practices. The company said Qualcomm imported integrated circuits and other products that infringe on five of its patents. Broadcom asked the ITC to bar the importation of those devices into the U.S. and to bar further sales of the products that already have been imported.

June 2005

The ITC opens an investigation into Broadcom's allegations that Qualcomm infringed on its patents.

May 2006

A staff attorney for the ITC advises an ITC judge that Qualcomm infringed on two Broadcom patents for cell phone chips.

Oct 2006

An administrative law judge with the ITC hands down a split decision, ruling that Qualcomm did infringe on one of Broadcom's patents but not on two others. The judge takes no action against Qualcomm.

June 2007

The ITC rules in favor of Broadcom and issues a ban on the importation of new cell phones made with Qualcomm 1xEV-DO and W-CDMA chipsets.