With U.S. Patent in Hand, ViaSat Decided To Sue Satellite Builder

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PARIS A U.S. patent awarded Jan. 31 to satellite broadband provider ViaSat Inc. triggered the company’s decision to sue satellite builder Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) for what ViaSat alleges is “SS/L’s pattern of using the proprietary information of other companies for its own benefit,” according to the lawsuit.

Filed Feb. 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, the lawsuit has not yet been formally served to SS/L, meaning both companies will try to settle their dispute out of court.

But given the harsh language of the lawsuit and the breadth of the allegations it makes about SS/L, it is difficult to envision an early settlement.

The 27-page lawsuit for patent infringement and breach of contract leaves little room for interpretation: ViaSat says SS/L, the most successful builder of commercial satellites in recent years, has stolen ViaSat’s ideas and used them for other satellites, notably the Jupiter spacecraft under construction for ViaSat’s principal U.S. competitor, Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md.

Not only did SS/L use ViaSat’s technology in violation of nondisclosure agreements, but it also tried to patent some of the technology on its own, ViaSat says, alleging that SS/L continues to use ViaSat technology in its products, not only for high-throughput Ka-band broadband satellites but for its entire telecommunications satellite business.

ViaSat’s WildBlue and its new Exede consumer broadband business in the United States expect to redraw the map of where satellite broadband can compete with terrestrial technologies thanks to ViaSat-1, which entered service in January and is 10 to 20 times more powerful than most other communications satellites.

Hughes hired SS/L to build Jupiter, which in many respects is a ViaSat-1 lookalike. Jupiter is scheduled for launch later this year.

“As a result of having its own technology used against it, ViaSat now stands to lose market advantage, including hundreds of thousands of customers that otherwise would have been customers on ViaSat-1 or subsequent ViaSat satellites,” the lawsuit says. “SS/L is incorporating aspects of ViaSat’s proprietary information and techniques as standard elements of SS/L’s broadcast and data satellites. … [M]any, if not all, of the satellites constructed by SS/L after receiving ViaSat’s groundbreaking designs improperly incorporate ViaSat’s proprietary information and technology.

“[T]his unrestrained behavior of misappropriating technologies in disregard of confidentiality protections will provide SS/L with more than $1 billion of ill-gotten gains.”

ViaSat says at least three patents it filed for itself and through its WildBlue division have been misappropriated by SS/L.

The patents deal with designs for satellite gateways, the placement of gateways relative to satellite beams for consumers, ways to prevent interference between geostationary and nongeostationary satellites using the same radio frequencies, and system design to permit 100-plus gigabits per second of throughput.

The patents were filed starting in 2006, before Carlsbad, Calif.-based ViaSat’s decision in early 2008 to hire SS/L to build the ViaSat-1 satellite designed to prove the validity of ViaSat’s designs. The three principal patents relevant to the lawsuit were awarded in August and November 2011, with the third on Jan. 31.

ViaSat says it obliged SS/L and the other bidders for the ViaSat-1 contract to sign nondisclosure agreements in early 2006 even as it was making its own patent applications.

Especially galling to ViaSat, according to the lawsuit, was that during negotiations that would lead to the SS/L ViaSat-1 satellite contract, SS/L, “unbeknownst to ViaSat, filed the first of three patent applications in an attempt to claim ViaSat’s ground-breaking inventions as its own.”

One of these patents was awarded to SS/L in September 2010.

In June 2009, SS/L won the contract to build Hughes’ Jupiter. It was then that ViaSat raised questions about what it said were the striking similarities with ViaSat-1.

“ViaSat and WildBlue have been damaged in an amount to be proven at trial, including but not limited to lost profits,” the lawsuit says, adding that ViaSat will ask the court for a cash award equivalent to triple any damages assessed by the court for infringement of the three ViaSat patents.