Import ban slapped on some 3G handsets

Trade group says chipset tech in some phones runs afoul of patents at the center of Qualcomm's battle with Broadcom.

The U.S. International Trade Commission on Thursday ordered an import ban on some phones using 3G chipsets from Qualcomm that have been found to infringe on a patent held by Broadcom.

The import ban is a bit of a compromise, as it essentially grandfathers phones that use technology that violates the patent. It does not apply to cell phone models imported for sale to the general public on or before the June 7, 2007 date of the order, the ITC said. But the ban does apply to the import of new models of handheld wireless communications devices that contain Qualcomm's infringing chips and chipsets.

"The commission determined that barring importation of downstream products, with an exemption for certain previously imported models, will substantially reduce the burdens imposed on third parties while affording meaningful relief to the patent holder," the ITC said in its order.

Last year an administrative judge at the ITC found that Qualcomm had violated Broadcom's patent, which covers technology that helps conserve battery power when a cell phone is not able to get a network signal. The technology is used in chipsets Qualcomm has developed for high-speed wireless networks known as 3G networks, which use the technologies EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) and WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access).

The order could have serious ramifications for wireless operators such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel, which have built their networks using EV-DO. AT&T, which is building a WCDMA network, could also be affected. Qualcomm is the dominant manufacturer of EV-DO chipsets, and it is a major supplier of WCDMA chipsets for devices that operate over AT&T's network.

These operators have spent billions of dollars over the past few years building out these networks, and any delay in selling handsets that work over this network could cost them a great deal of money. Handset makers, Motorola and Samsung, which manufacture phones for the EV-DO and WCDMA networks will also likely suffer from a ban.

The much-anticipated Apple iPhone, which will be sold exclusively for AT&T's network, will not be impacted by this ban, since the phone does not use WCDMA. It uses AT&T's slower 2.5G network technology.

Qualcomm and Broadcom have been battling each other in court over patent infringement for several years. Last week, a federal jury in Santa Ana, Calif., found Qualcomm guilty of infringing three Broadcom patents and awarded the company $19.64 million in damages. Broadcom is also seeking a permanent injunction that would prevent Qualcomm from using any of the infringed technology. Qualcomm has also filed patent infringement lawsuits against Broadcom.

"We are very pleased with the ITC's ruling, and gratified that the commissioners followed the letter and spirit of their charter, which is the protection of American products from unfair trade practices," Broadcom said in a statement. "We have been forced to seek redress in the ITC and the courts because Qualcomm has repeatedly refused to recognize the value of Broadcom's patented technology."

CNET's Anne Broache contributed to this report.

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