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ETSI Holds the Phone on Nano-SIM Ruling

By Richard Adhikari
Apr 2, 2012 8:08 AM PT

Facing a battle between smartphone vendors over a proposed standard for nano-SIM cards, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has held off deciding on the issue until it can achieve a broad industry consensus.

ETSI Holds the Phone on Nano-SIM Ruling

Opposing proposals have been tabled by a consortium consisting of Nokia, Motorola Mobility and Research In Motion on the one hand, and Apple on the other. The skirmishing has become down and dirty, with Apple's rivals leveling accusations against it claiming it's not quite playing by the rules.

SIM cards are used in mobile devices to store their owners' identification information. Newer, smaller SIM cards allow phone makers to design slimmer phones. The side whose proposal is picked as the standard could gain a significant advantage in the mobile market.

"Nokia is pleased that ETSI's Smart Card Platform Technical Committee has decided to take time out and postponed the decision on nano-SIM," company spokesperson Mark Durrant told TechNewsWorld.

ETSI will look at the issue again soon.

Apple and ETSI did not respond to our request for comment for this story.

What's Happening in Nano-SIM Territory

Squabbling over the nano-SIM standard has taken a nasty turn, with Apple's competitors alleging it tried to increase its voting power at ETSI by registering six European subsidiaries with ETSI. Subsidiaries with about US$11 billion or more in revenues are allowed up to 45 votes. Apple's rivals fear that with Cupertino's enormous cash balance, the iPhone maker could easily muster up a head count that would outweigh the competition.

RIM also claimed in a letter that three people supposedly working for Apple registered for Bell Mobility, KT Corp. and SK Telekom, and stated that they shouldn't be allowed to vote because ETSI rules prohibit voting by proxy.

Apple on March 19 wrote ETSI offering to grant royalty-free licenses to any Apple patents for nano-SIM provided its proposal is adopted as a standard and that all other patent holders accept the same terms in accordance with the principle of reciprocity, according to patent consultant Florian Mueller.

Reciprocity "means that Apple only asks for royalty-free access to other patents essential to its proposal if that becomes the new standard," Mueller told TechNewsWorld.

However, Nokia has made it clear that if Apple's proposal was adopted as the nano-SIM standard, it would withhold its patents so its technology couldn't be included.

A Snapshot of Nokia's and Apple's Ideas

One of ETSI's requirements for a nano-SIM standard was that a nano-SIM card be smaller than the microSIM card. MicroSIM cards are 15 mm long, 12 mm wide and 0.76 mm thick.

Apple's proposal "does not meet all the pre-agreed requirements for the so-called nano-SIM," Nokia's Durrant said. He pointed out that the proposal from the consortium including Nokia has different dimensions from that of a microSIM, whereas Apple's proposed card "is the same length as the width of current microSIMs and so would risk jamming, leading to card and product damage."

Further, Apple's proposal requires a card tray, which "would reduce design options and increase manufacturing, cost, perhaps not significant for high-end smartphones but it would be for lower-cost devices," Durrant pointed out.

Cupertino was recently awarded a patent for a nano-SIM tray.

The Realities of the Situation

Apple has lined up major European carriers behind it, and its proposal is "generally the least controversial one," Mueller said. Still, "carriers are one important group of stakeholders in this, but so are device makers, and everyone wants to keep clear of patent trouble if it can be avoided."

Apple effort to gain the support of carriers is not surprising because "it can say, 'if you want to sell our iPhones and iPads, back us or we'll give them to your competition,'" Jim McGregor, research director at NPD In-Stat, told TechNewsWorld. Apple "is using its patent powers to impact the market, and we've seen that in previous months."

But Apple's proposal to offer its nano-SIM standard free to the market may not even get off the ground. "Nobody's going to support anything they offer because they've been way too heavy-handed with their IP portfolio over the past year," McGregor suggested.

Look for more battles in the future.

"The mobile market is worth maybe hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and no matter what happens from now on, you'll see everyone and their grandmother scrapping for a piece," McGregor said.

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