DOJ probes role of special interest group in new WiFi standard

31 January 2018 1:39pm
Yellow Wifi Sign

26 January 2018. By Joshua Sisco and Leah Nylen.

The US Department of Justice is looking into whether a group of companies at a key standards organization attempted to exclude technologies from certain firms in creating a new Wifi connectivity standard, MLex has learned.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, in 2016 imposed remedies after finding that a special interest group of 18 companies known as DensFi violated the standards body's rules. DensiFi included Apple, Broadcom, Cisco, Intel, Qualcomm, Huawei, Samsung and others, and was initially formed to help expedite work on the 802.11 ax standard, which is aimed at improving Wifi connectivity in dense metropolitan areas and set to be released in 2019.

The DOJ’s inquiry is understood to be in the preliminary stages, and some of the companies in the DensiFi group have been asked to preserve documents. The DOJ letter asks recipients to maintain documents related to the operations of DensiFi, which was disbanded in December 2016.

Special interest groups have long been used at IEEE to help more quickly adopt new standards.

DensiFi members made up a majority of the IEEE members involved in developing the standard. In June 2016, an employee of SR Technologies filed a complaint with IEEE alleging that DensiFI members were using their majority to exclude the technologies of non-members from the standard. IEEE initiated an investigation and found that DensiFI had engaged in dominance with the effect of “excluding viewpoints of non-[DensiFi] participants from ‘fair and equitable consideration.’”

To remedy the situation, IEEE limited the votes of DensiFi members. Companies responded by withdrawing their employees from DensiFi, with the last ones leaving in December 2016. After that, individual IEEE members regained their voting power.

Ericsson, InterDigital and the SR Technologies employee, Graham Smith, filed an appeal within IEEE, arguing that the remedy was insufficient. The appeal was dismissed in January 2017.

In response to the 802.11ax controversy and issues within some other standards, IEEE created new instructions that clarify that individuals participating in standards “have an obligation to act and vote as an individual and not under the direction of any other individual or group.”

The DOJ’s document preservation letters refer to IEEE’s subsequent actions, suggesting the agency is interested in the standards group’s role in policing alleged abuse of dominance within its ranks.

The IEEE is comprised of engineers from a number of technology companies, with each company represented by multiple people, and membership totalling more 423,000 people.

Other members of DensiFi included Newracom, MediaTek, LG Electronics, ZTE, Toshiba, Sony, Orange, NTT, NTT DoCoMo, Marvell, and Quantenna Communications.

DensiFi members and the IEEE did not immediately respond for comment.

The inquiry comes amid a concerted effort at the DOJ to examine the potential anticompetitive impact standard setting organizations such as IEEE have in creating widely adopted technologies.