A recent U.S. District Court ruling in a longstanding tuner tiff between cable-modem component suppliers Broadcom Corp. and Microtune Inc. may throw up significant interference for a group of vendors, possibly snarling product shipments — or driving MSO customers to the competition.
The crux of the situation is two-year-old suit filed by Microtune, in which it charged that Broadcom Corp.'s BCM 3415 tuner infringed on patent for single-chip radio frequency tuners. In March, a U.S. District Court jury in the Eastern District of Texas decided Broadcom "willfully" infringed on the patent.
The judge presiding over the case followed that verdict up late last month, granting Microtune a preliminary injunction preventing Broadcom — or its cable-modem vendor customers — from using or selling the tuner in any U.S. electronics products.
Broadcom does plan to appeal the case to the U.S. Appellate Court.
If the injunction remains in place during that process, a half-dozen vendors — including Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Ambit Microsystems PCI — face the likelihood that they'll need to change tuners to keep their product lines going. They may look to other tuner sources, including Microtune — something that adds to the patent victory, according to CEO Doug Bartek.
"That's a natural benefit, and a lot of people have contacted us on that actually, to see about changing to our silicon tuner," he said.
In a statement, Broadcom said it plans to introduce new tuner products to support its existing customers, noting that the injunction applies only to products marketed and sold in the United States.
"This ruling will have not have a significant impact on our customers," according to the statement.
But while modem vendors who supply products to overseas cable operators don't necessarily have to pay attention to the ruling, those who do business in the U.S. will, Bartek countered.
Up to MSOs
Cable analyst Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies Inc. thinks the affected modem providers will be considering tuner-replacement options. But it will be the MSOs that determine what vendors do about the tuner.
"At the end of the day, vendors do what cable operator customers want, and if cable operators that this is either A, unethical or B, a liability issue that they are not comfortable with, then vendors will need to change," he said. "And the MSO answer to that question is unclear."
The injunction also applies to Broadcom BCM 3415 tuners already sold to consumers, so Microtune could demand they be recalled and replaced. But Microtune is not going to take that route, given the bad feelings that could generate among very the vendors and cable customers it seeks.
Instead, Microtune will focus on products now in inventory or production.
"We don't want to do anything that negatively affects the industry, but we are going to protect our intellectual property," Bartek said.
Perhaps a greater issue for affected vendors is if they do replace the tuner, the modem must be recertified for the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification by Cable Television Laboratories Inc.
Vendors can use a new four-week short-wave recertification process for DOCSIS 1.0 and 1.1 modems, but the process does not apply to DOCSIS 2.0 or PacketCable modems, which must undergo the full 12-week cycle.
Either way, it will cost vendors from $20,000 to $130,000, depending on the type of modem that's involved.
Linksys Corp., which uses the Broadcom tuner in its home-media gateway, is already taking steps in that direction, according to Janie Tsao, Linksys executive vice president of broadband and business development.
"Linksys has already begun to make arrangements to incorporate a new tuner in its cable-gateway product," she said. "The plan is to submit a new gateway into CableLabs' short wave as soon as possible to achieve DOCSIS and CableHome certification."
The gateway is also CableHome-certified, but whether -- or how -- it should be recertified has not been determined yet, according to Linksys.
When contacted, Scientific-Atlanta and Ambit declined to comment, nor are they commenting on what potential impact the injunction will have on their cable modem business.
It could in fact have quite an impact, Harris noted. That's especially true if their MSO clients jump ship to other vendors who don't use the tuner.
"With the products being relatively equal, do you really want to deal with this to save a buck? I think they [MSOs] are going to be thinking about this very carefully," he said. "As much as the silicon supplier or the vendor may try to ease fears, not buying the product limits their liability. Period."
Meanwhile, the preliminary injunction is only the first round in the battle between Broadcom and Microtune, and Broadcom is by no means only on the receiving end. Broadcom has filed three suits claiming Microtune is guilty of infringement related to four Broadcom patents. The first of those will begin trial later this year.
Broadcom also has filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission, accusing Microtune of engaging in unfair trade practices by importing tuners, power amplifiers and Bluetooth wireless products that infringe on two other Broadcom patents.