Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Telecom veteran questions Verizon VOIP patents

Grant Gross, IDG News Service, Washington Bureau
Two patents owned by Verizon Communications Inc. in its infringement lawsuit against Vonage Holdings Corp. are invalid, and if allowed to stand, could threaten all competing VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) services, a telecommunications industry veteran said Tuesday.

Two of the three Verizon patents a jury upheld in a March decision were described in a standards group called the VOIP Forum before Verizon filed for the patents, said Daniel Berninger, who had a hand in launching Vonage but now works as a telecom analyst for Tier1Research.com. The VOIP Forum described the name translation call-processing step in an open standard developed in 1996, and Verizon applied for the two patents in March 1997 and February 2000, he said in an interview about the case.


Verizon's patents focus on using name translation to connect VOIP calls to traditional telephone networks. But without name translation, no VOIP calls could be completed, and all Verizon VOIP competitors are in danger of getting sued, Berninger said. "If you translate these patents so ridiculously broadly, then there's nothing left," he said. "Everybody infringes."


Two Verizon spokesmen didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on Berninger's information.


Berninger, an advocate of open standards and cofounder of the VON Coalition, said members of the VOIP Forum talked extensively about name translation during call set-up during discussions about the voice portion of the H.323 standard during 1996, and in the parallel development of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) at the Internet Engineering Task Force. Several major tech vendors participated in the standards-setting process, and two papers on H.323 published in January 1997, one by coworkers at his former employer VocalTec Communications Ltd., describe the technologies later patented by Verizon, he said.


Other telecom experts have disagreed about whether Verizon's patents could affect other VOIP providers.


But Berninger compared name translation to the Internet's domain name system (DNS), which translates Internet domain names into IP addresses. "Essentially every VOIP provider on planet Earth" uses the name translation processing step, he said.


Vonage pointed to other technology it believed preceded Verizon's patents at a trial that ended with a March verdict that the company had infringed three Verizon patents. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia interpreted the Verizon claims too broadly to be valid, said Brooke Schulz, Vonage's vice president for communications.


"The patents as filed and awarded ... were very narrow," she said. "We continue to believe, for this and many other reasons, we don't infringe on their technology."


Berninger began looking into the patents recently because of the Vonage case. In the March verdict, Vonage was ordered to pay Verizon US$58 million. Last Friday, a U.S. district court judge barred Vonage from signing up new customers, but an appeals court gave the company a temporary stay the same day.

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