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Sprint Declares War on Cable

12/20/2011 10:41 AM

Hell hath no fury like a telecommunications carrier scorned.

Sprint Nextel — cable’s erstwhile kissing cousin in the wireless industry — on Monday sued its former cable buddies over 12 voice-over-IP patents, seeking unspecified damages for past infringement and an injunction blocking them from using the patents (see Sprint Sues Comcast, TWC, Cox And Cable One Over VoIP Patents).

That came just 17 days after Comcast and Time Warner Cable (along with Bright House) announced their landmark agreement with Verizon Wireless, under which the MSOs will resell the carrier’s products and services and vice versa (see Mobile Mashup and Comcast, TWC And BHN Sell Spectrum To Verizon Wireless For $3.6 Billion). Cox announced it was joining the VZ Wireless club, too, last Friday.

Now that Big Cable has turned its back on Sprint (and Clearwire, majority owned by Sprint) to dance with Big Red, Sprint’s lawyers are looking for compensation for those VoIP patents the company had been tacitly allowing the MSOs to use for years.

The cable operators aren’t commenting on this turn of events, and Sprint won’t say whether it tried to reach patent-licensing deals with the MSOs before dragging them into court.

The lawsuits tell the story of a Sprint engineer named Joe Christie, who according to the company in 1993 came up with the notion of sending voice traffic over data packets rather than via inefficient traditional circuit-switched phone switches.

He’s portrayed as a heroic, industry-changing innovator — who met a tragic end. In its lawsuits, Sprint says Christie died unexpectedly at his home in February 1996. Here’s an excerpt from the Comcast complaint (download the PDF here):

Mr. Christie did not live to see his innovations deployed into a commercial platform. But Mr. Christie’s revolutionary inventions have an enduring legacy. Mr. Christie’s inventions and the related innovations made by people working with Mr. Christie have resulted in a [voice-over-packet] patent portfolio of over 120 issued United States Patents. Unfortunately, many companies in the industry, including Comcast, have realized the great value in this technology and have misappropriated it without Sprint’s permission.

Perhaps invoking the specter of a dead engineer is supposed to appeal to a jury’s sense of justice, though as a strictly legal matter it doesn’t seem relevant. In any case, Sprint’s gloves are off.

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