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WiMax patent alliance announced

Six companies together launch a patent pool to keep the cost of WiMax patents affordable for businesses developing devices that connect to the broadband wireless network.

Six technology heavyweights came together Monday to announce an alliance to jointly license patents for the broadband wireless technology WiMax.

The group, which calls itself the Open Patent Alliance, includes Intel, Cisco Systems, Samsung Electronics, Sprint Nextel, Clearwire, and Alcatel-Lucent. The intent of the group is to gather rights to WiMax patents and license them to makers of consumer electronics devices, networking equipment, and computers.

During a Webcast Monday, executives from each of the six companies emphasized the openness of the alliance that was being created. And the companies said they hoped other companies would join the group.

"As a founding member of the alliance, our role is to work with different vendors and evangelize the benefits of an open model," said Sriram Viswanathan, general manager for WiMax at Intel Capital. "We will invite others to join and try to influence players who are whetted to other models to understand the benefits of openness."

WiMax is an IP-based wireless technology that offers high-speed Internet access similar to speeds delivered through Wi-Fi, a short-range wireless technology that uses unlicensed spectrum. So far the technology, which was standardized a couple of years ago, has been used mostly in the developing world to provide fixed wireless broadband.

Now companies such as Intel, Sprint Nextel, and Clearwire are pushing mobile WiMax to bring true broadband wireless to MP3 music players, gaming devices, smartphones, and a plethora of other consumer electronics devices.

Sprint Nextel and Clearwire announced earlier this year they are joining forces to complete the construction of a nationwide WiMax network in the U.S. And Intel already has plans to embed WiMax chips into its Centrino laptop chips. Samsung, Cisco, and Alcatel-Lucent have already been developing infrastructure equipment for WiMax networks.

But these companies all agree that for WiMax to be successful a more robust ecosystem is needed. The OPA is meant to encourage this ecosystem primarily by making WiMax-related patents inexpensive and accessible to anyone.

This is different than the cellular model, in which companies such as Qualcomm, Nokia, and Ericsson have separately developed technology and charged patent royalties for 3G products.

Cell phone makers can spend more than 25 percent of developing a new product on licensing underlying wireless technologies, according to a Wall Street Journal article. Intel's Viswanathan said these high royalties are to blame for stifling innovation. He said that cellular chips have not expanded to other devices such as cameras, music players, or gaming devices because of the high cost of licensing patents.

"We haven't seen a broad proliferation of cellular technology in anything other than handsets because the model is closely held and restrictive," he said.

A similar open patent strategy was devised in the video industry for video compression technology.

That said, WiMax faces many challenges. For one, Sprint Nextel and Clearwire are the only major carriers building a WiMax network in the U.S. The nation's two largest cell phone operators, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, have already said they plan to use a competing technology known as LTE.

Still, WiMax backers say that WiMax has at least a three-year time to market advantage since LTE hasn't even been standardized yet. Intel, which plans to include WiMax in its Centrino platform, says it expects to seed the market quickly.