British Telecom is known to be aggressively enforcing its patent base. It appears that the company's lawyers may have found an old patent that, if validated, could mean trouble for cell phone makers and cellular network carriers.
The 14 lawsuits have not been filed by British Telecom (BT) directly, but by Steelhead Licensing, LLC, on January 4, 2013. While the filed complaints state that Steelhead is incorporated as a limited liability company with headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, the business records archive of Delaware does not include Steelhead as an entity with an awarded business license, which is a sign that Steelhead Licensing was founded very recently.
However, since the patent assignment database of the USPTO does not list the patent at the center of the lawsuits as transferred to Steelhead, there is now speculation that BT may have established Steelhead as an entity to monetize some of its patents. BT did not return our calls to clarify whether the company is still in possession of the patent or not and whether Steelhead is related to BT or not. The lawsuits claim that "Steelhead owns all rights of recovery under the [5,491,834] patent, including the exclusive right to recover for past infringement."
This particular case goes to the very basics of cell phone functionality and is reminiscent of BT's lawsuit against Prodigy in 2000, in which the carrier claimed patent right to the hyperlink in web documents.
This time, BT says that it owns the rights to a cellular technology that can evaluate the signal strength at a mobile device received from a base station of "cells" and a technology to initiate a handover from one cell to another. According to the lawsuits, current 3G and 4G networks and devices that take advantage of this technology infringe upon the patent. The wave of lawsuits targets Apple, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom (parent of T-Mobile USA) HTC, Kyocera, LG, Metro PCS, Motorola, NEC Casio, Pantech, Research in Motion, Sprint Nextel, Verizon, and ZTE.
In its request for trial, Steelhead asks for an award of damages for "past infringement and any continuing and/or future infringement up until the date that [the defendants are] finally and permanently enjoined from further infringement, including compensatory damages", in addition to compensation for Steelhead's legal fees. The patent in question was awarded to BT in 1996.
[UPDATE] BT has reached out to us to clarify the situation. A rep for the company stated, "BT sold all of its rights to the patents last year. We have no involvement in Steelhead Licensing LLC’s litigation activity."