The Patent Brouhaha

June 28, 2012  - By
Image: GPS World

Two British technologists backed by the U.K. Ministry of Defense have filed patents on the future interoperable GPS and Galileo signal designs that severely disrupt modernization plans for both systems and suddenly, unexpectedly place receiver manufacturers in a highly uncertain and unfavorable situation. Some of the patents have been granted in the U.K. and in Europe, and applications are pending in U.S. patent court, with a ruling expected at any time.

Companies in the United States and outside the country are being approached and asked to pay royalties, on the basis of the patent filings, for use of the European E1 Open Service signal and the modernized GPS L1C signal. Should such initiatives prevail, costs would presumably be passed along to end users of GPS and Galileo — the same taxpayers who have already paid once for the systems.

The purveyor of the royalty solicitations is Jim Ashe, vice president for sales and intellectual property at Ploughshare Innovations Ltd., Hampshire, UK. The patents, if successfully used to collect fees from satellite manufacturers or receiver manufacturers, would have a chilling effect on the use of the new interoperable signals that all parties have labored so hard, for so long, to design. They could quite possibly lead to a return to a BOC(1,1) structure for these signals, losing the benefits of MBOC.

“There’s quite an argument going on,” said one person familiar with the controversy. “Some of the methods of arguing have not been too kind.”

The Background. A great deal of work was accomplished cooperatively between the United States and the European Union (EU) to develop the landmark 2004 signal agreement that emerged from the Galileo Signal Task Force, formalizing cooperation on satellite navigation between the United States and more than two dozen European countries, including the U.K. Part of that agreement concerned a common signal structure (spectrum) for the civilian signals for both the E1 Open Service (OS) signal — the Galileo equivalent of GPS L1 — and the new U.S. GPS L1C signal to be implemented on the GPS III satellites, coming as early as 2015.

The EU said during that process, in effect, “Even though we have agreed on this, Europe wants to be able to optimize the E1 OS signal beyond the agreement on that civilian signal being a binary offset carrier BOC(1,1) signal.” Both international entities had agreed that would be the waveform or the spectrum of the new signal.

The Europeans began to evaluate methods of optimizing their signal. They had some designs called composite binary coded symbols (CBCS), a mechanism of putting a higher frequency componenent into the signal structure, and also a version called CBCS*, meaning that they found there was a bias generated by that extra signal, and so they had to invert every other one of its repetitions.

The signal structure that they were playing with was centered on a plus and a minus 5-MHz component. (Actually five times 1.023, because of the inherent clock of GPS, you can think of it as 1.023 MHz. Everyone in doing compatible or interoperable signals agreed upon that; when reference is made to 5 or 10 MHz, or an even 5 or an even 10, it means that number multiplied by 1.023).

The Europeans were were putting an additional BOC signal on top of the BOC 1,1, and it would have plus or minus 5 MHz as the centers of those two BOC peaks, and then some kind of waveform to modulate that.

The United States pushed back against that to some degree, and proposed adoption of the so-called MBOC waveform, in which case the U.S. signal was equally optimized with a concept called time-multiplexed BOC (TMBOC). The Europeans used the CBOC approach. So, very different ways of doing this. In the European way, they transmitted a continuous but very low-power BOC(6,1) term. The U.S approach transmits four BOC(6,1) chips out of every 33 chips of code (see “Future Wave” sidebar).

A chip in this case means a part of the spreading code, so each signal has its spreading codes, just like the C/A code is a spreading code, meaning a pseudorandom code modulating the carrier. L1C and E1 OS have a pseudorandom spreading code.

The U.S. approach does not put BOC(6,1) components onto the data; that’s what is commonly called MBOC. The U.S. approach is TMBOC, on the pilot carrier only, not on the data component. The European system is like two separate signals, the BOC(1,1) signal having both pilot and data, and a BOC(6,1) signal having both pilot and data. They’ve put the (6,1) into both data and pilot components.

Cue the Antagonists. Part of the task force from Europe and the United States considering the future signals’ make-up were Tony Pratt and John Owen, who works for the U.K. Ministry of Defense and whose office sponsored Pratt’s work. The two participated heavily in all these signal discussions. They stated in early meetings they planned to file patents in some areas.

“Frankly,” states one source, “people should have paid more attention when they said that, and asked ‘What do you mean, and how’s it going to work, etcetera?’ And secondly, there probably should have been a written agreement between parties that nobody will take advantage or patent any of these ideas that we are developing.”

Pratt and Owen filed a number of patents domestically, in the U.K., and and in the European Union, in 2003 and in 2006, and in other places around the world, such as Japan, Canada, and in the United States as well. Some of the U.K. and European patents have been granted. The first of some of those U.S. patents may be issued in the near future.

The original patent filings were later amended to include new claims. The new claims were much more specifically oriented toward TMBOC and CBOC, whereas the original claims were more generally oriented toward modulated methods. The claims have been modified over the years; this is fairly standard patent practice.

As a result, the original 2003 patent doesn’t necessarily read on a particular signal, but its early filing date has precedence. The claims have been updated and modified, and if the patent office issues those, as a true patent, then the new claims apply. Plenty of big patent battles have been fought over just such issues.

Once the patent is issued, a satellite or receiver  manufacturer must assume that it is valid, and has only two responses to make, other than acquiescing to royalty claims. The manufacturer can either say, if building a product, “No, my product does not infringe, and I will prove that it doesn’t.’” The other choice for manufacturers is to go back into the patent office and sue the patent filer (and grantee) in the patent courts and prove that the patent was invalid in the first place that the patentee should not have been granted it.

The United States and others were taken off-guard when the U.K. company Ploughshare, which is owned and controlled by a part of the British MoD called Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), started making claims on manufacturers. The DSTL is similar to the U.S. Defense Advance Research Products Agency (DARPA), which is credited with inventing the Internet. If taxpayer money goes into something new and interesting, it is considered in some circles legitimate to file patents on those and attempt to recover taxpayer money through royalties on that taxpayer investment. That concept is not being challenged. Questions as to whether the patents are legitimate are very much in discussion.

Ploughshare has contacted companies, saying, “If you use these signals coming from either the European satellites or the U.S. satellites, we will go after companies using these signals.” There are different patents issued, one by the European Patent Office, applying to most of the EU countries, that applies directly to the TMBOC signal, the E1 OS signal, and possibly also to Europe’s E5 signal, which is E5a and E5b; and there is also a patent for GPS III, the L1C signal.

The Devil. For details on the various patents, see Application 10594128 and Application 12305401. See also European patent specification EP 1 664 827 B1, and International Application WO2007/148081. These are examples; there are other applications as well. It is to be argued in some future court as to how those patents are to be interpreted.

“If you take the patent that hits TMBOC, and you take the broadest possible interpretation of that patent against receiver companies, it says: if you bring into your antenna and process that signal, whether you use all parts of it or not, for instance if you use the BOC(1,1) and not the BOC(6,1) part — then you infringe the patent. Others argue that if you don’t use both components, you don’t infringe.

“But the claim is written broadly enough that it would apply to any receiver receiving and processing the signal. Nobody says what processing means. The patent says if you receive and process the TMBOC signal, as defined in the prior claim, you infringe the patent.

“There is confusion as to whether that will apply or not apply — some people expect that it doesn’t and some people think that it might. That’s up in the air.”

George Is Getting Upset. Various factions in the United States are upset by and trying to figure out what to do about the impasse. From a government point of view, there are three paths that the U.S. government can follow:

  • Put pressure on the U.K. diplomatically. That would be up to the State Department to put pressure on the EU or the U.K. in particular. The EU and the continental Europeans are equally furious at the British for doing this, as far as parties in the U.S. understand. This can’t be stated as a fact but is widely understood and thought to be the case. The diplomatic approach has its limits, obviously.
  • Go into Europe and fight the patents in European patent court and try to prove them invalid, to invalidate the patents. Companies could do the same thing, go into various courts, whether they be U.S. or European or Japanese, and say: “Our receivers don’t infringe,” and then have to prove that to the court; or say “The whole patent should not have been allowed, and I’ll fight the legitimacy of the patent.”
  • Some believe — and there is controversy and anger on this point — that, just as Galileo’s IOV satellites have the capability to transmit without the BOC(6,1) component, the United States should be able to do that with the GPS III satellites as well. Because if the signal is not there, and if the receivers are therefore not designed to process the signals that are not there, then the patent no longer has any relevance.

“If we are to turn off the BOC(6,1) term for a period of time until the legal or diplomatic or other approaches worked, then we would be able to turn the BOC(6,10) term back on again, and return to the original agreed MBOC and TMBOC signals. That requires some coordination between the United States and Europe, and it requires some work to make that possible in the GPS III satellites, putting a switch in the GPS III satellites to permit the operators to turn that (6,1)BOC on and off. This is being hotly debated.”

Some parties object, stating that L1C is too important a signal to mess with, and this proposal runs the risk of slowing down the program, and/or making it more expensive. They believe strongly that the off/on switch is not the best or most far-sighted option: why should the United States be forced to change its signal design due to an illegitimate patent, and in the end wind up with a less capable system?

It is not publicly known whether the Air Force is or is not looking into that option.

During the week of June 25 there was Working Group-A meeting in Washington D.C. followed by a plenary meeting between the EU and United States. The patent controversy was presumably discussed in some fashion, but whether formally addressed or lurking in the background is unknown at this time.

“There is some naivete around this,” said the magazine’s soure. “It’s a serious threat. People think maybe they’ll only go after the high-end receivers, and maybe the royalties won’t be so bad. Ploughshare is trying to lull people into a false sense of security. The impact of this will be great unless it is defeated.”

Future Wave

Excerpted from the “Future Wave” article on L1C, GPS World, April 2011:

“The L1C waveform originally was to have been a pure BOC(1,1) (a 1.023 MHz square wave modulated by a 1.023 MHz spreading code). Negotiations between the U.S. and the European Union (EU) at that time resulted in an agreement that both GPS and Galileo would use a baseline BOC(1,1) signal. However, the EU reserved the right to further optimize their signal within certain bounds. Some of the optimization proposals were known as CBCS and CBCS*. However, in further EU/US discussions it was decided that L1C and the Galileo E1 open service signal should have identically the same spectrum. This was a significant challenge because of different baseline signal structures and existing designs.

“The breakthrough came when [U.S. representative] John Betz proposed what is called MBOC. The MBOC waveform has 10/11th of its power in BOC(1,1) and 1/11th in BOC(6,1). However, L1C and E1 OS achieve this result in very different ways. The Galileo technique is called CBOC. The GPS technique is called TMBOC. Whereas Galileo has a 50/50 power split between pilot and data and includes the BOC(6,1) component in each, GPS includes the BOC(6,1) waveform only in the pilot component by modulating four of every 33 spreading code chips with a 6 MHz square wave and 31 chips with a 1 MHz square wave. With 75 percent of the power in the pilot, the result is 3/4 x 4/33 or 1/11, as required. It is likely the BOC(6,1) signal component will be ignored by consumer-grade GNSS receivers where a narrow RF bandwidth is preferred. Fortunately that is a loss of only 12 percent (0.56 dB) of the L1C pilot power. However, for commercial and professional grade receivers, the extra waveform transitions (wider Gabor bandwidth) can be used to improve code tracking signal-to-noise ratio, and with certain advanced techniques it should be possible to improve multipath mitigation. This final point depends on careful control or calibration of the transmitted code timing and symmetry.”

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