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High Court judgment puts an end to wireless confusion

Legal ruling clears schools to use Wi-Fi to transfer student data, reports Dorothy Walker

A landmark legal action begun by the Department for Education and Skills has given schools more freedom to use student data on wireless networks.

The action challenged a patent on wireless systems held by Frontline Technology Limited dating back to 1992. FTL's sister company, Bromcom Computers, a supplier of wireless registration systems, was made sole licensee under the patent.

Increasingly, schools have turned to wireless devices to record class registration data, then process it via management information systems. But FTL has asserted its rights.

Schools using systems from suppliers other than Bromcom were told they could be infringing the patent, and there has been confusion about whether any wireless transfer of pupil data would be an infringement. Two years ago, FTL offered schools a licence to transfer data via wireless for an average pound;1,000 a year for a secondary school.

The DfES advised schools not to take out the licences and issued proceedings in the High Court to test the validity of the patent.

Three patent claims were contested in the trial, and much of the technical detail focused on what would have qualified as invention and what would have been obvious in 1992.

The judgment was handed down in June. Two of the claims, which outline the concept and principles of using a wireless network for attendance registration, were judged invalid. A third claim about the way FTL technology handles data on a wireless network was upheld.

The DfES has issued guidance to advise schools that if they want to use wireless local area network technologies for pupil data registration, they should use standard equipment compliant with the 802.11 standards, known as Wi-Fi. The DfES says Wi-Fi equipment does not require a licence under the FTL patent, no matter which software is used.

Schools are advised to check for the Wi-Fi logo. Equipment that does not bear the logo but states compliance with one of three 802.11 standards - 802.11a, 802.11b or 802.11g - is likely to be standard but schools should check with the manufacturer. Any other equipment should be seen as specialist, and schools wishing to use it should also seek advice from their supplier.

A DfES spokesman said: "The judgment achieves what the Department set out to do - to give greater freedom to schools to buy wireless products and services of their choice and stimulate the wireless technology market through greater competition.

"We will now work with (the technology agency) Becta and its specialist advisers to prepare guidance for schools and others on how the judgment widens choice and market opportunities. This guidance will be published as soon as possible."

FTL says no school has bought a licence under the patent other than via a Bromcom product. The firm is now amending the patent. A Frontline spokesman said: "The DfES' advice to schools was issued prior to Frontline's recent application to the High Court to amend the patent. In view of the ongoing legal proceedings concerning amendment of the patent, it is inappropriate to make any further comment at this time."

DfES guidance for schools: Frontline Technology:

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