IEEE Scandal Leads to 802.20 Overhaul

A bitter dispute between Mobile WiMAX partners Intel and Motorola, and wireless broadband partners Qualcomm and Kyocera, over the possible adoption of a Qualcomm technology as wireless broadband standard 802.20 forced the IEEE yesterday to order the complete reorganization of the 802.20 Working Group.

Both sides in the dispute have been crying foul since last November, when Intel and Motorola alleged that a merged standards proposal to the Working Group blending elements of Qualcomm and Kyocera technologies violated IEEE procedures. Suspicion over the way these complaints were handled by the Group's chairman at the time, Jerry Upton, led the companies to allege that he was actually a paid consultant for Qualcomm - an allegation which Upton later admitted.

Standards are adopted in IEEE working groups under a one-person/one-vote protocol. Motorola and Intel alleged that Upton's chairmanship of the Group led to a 2003 election of committee officers that was too heavily weighted in Qualcomm's favor.

A report released yesterday by the Standards Board of the IEEE Standards Association (SASB) stated, "After completing our investigation and hearing from interested parties, the SASB unanimously concluded that the existing IEEE 802.20 process was not effectively serving the IEEE-SA goal of high-quality standards achieved through a fair and open process."

The report went on to state that the SASB decided to excuse from the Working Group decision making authority anyone who might have a conflict of interest, "in an effort to provide clearly neutral leadership and to eliminate perceptions of possible bias." The Wall Street Journal learned this dismissal affected Upton and three other members.

While yesterday's dismissal stopped short of finding fault or placing blame, it clearly gave hope for key Qualcomm rivals who have contended for a year or more that the company has been using monopolistic tactics, based around the extension of standards built on its patent portfolio, to muscle a dominant position for itself in wireless broadband.

In August 2005, Qualcomm faced another challenge from then-competitor Flarion Technologies, which put forth a wireless broadband proposal before the IEEE based on Flash-Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (Flash-OFDM). Industry observers believed the Flarion proposal was well on its way to success, and that an 802.20 draft would be hammered out in 2006. Then Qualcomm surprised everyone by purchasing Flarion outright for $600 million.

That got everyone's attention. ABI Research analyst Philip Solis noted at the time, "With the closing of Qualcomm's acquisition of Flarion, 802.20 may get a new lease on life...Qualcomm will almost certainly attempt to rally support from other industry participants."

Trouble was, with all eyes on Qualcomm, it couldn't exactly act with stealth for its plans going forward. A Baker Capital financial report last June noted that at least one Intel engineer filed a complaint with the SASB, claiming as many as 20 802.20 Working Group board members were consistently voting as a block in favor of Qualcomm.

Qualcomm currently holds a multitude of licenses to provide high-speed wireless service throughout Europe. So this recent activity will certainly not go unnoticed by the European Commission, which may already be planning to launch a full-scale investigation into whether Qualcomm's behavior is anti-competitive by the legal standard.

In a statement to BetaNews this afternoon, Intel vice president and general manager for its Service Provider Business Group, Scott Richardson, said, "Intel supports the actions taken by the IEEE standards board, as we believe this action will help restore fairness and openness to the standards process. We look forward to working with the new leadership of the 802.20 Working Group."

Today's report from the SASB stated it will continue its plan to lift the Working Group's operational suspension on October 1.

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