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The European ‘Unitary’ patent comes a step closer

04 July 2011

A single European patent looks more likely as ministers reached agreement on the detail of a 'Unitary' patent at the Competitiveness Council in Luxembourg last week. For the first time in 60 years, ministers have agreed on the languages regime for the patent – essentially, the number of translations that applicants need to file in order to obtain their patent. Agreement was also reached on the technical details of the patent itself.

Currently, businesses seeking Europe-wide patent protection can either apply for national patents in each country separately or they can apply to the European Patent Office (EPO) for a European Patent under the European Patent Convention (EPC). These European Patents are bundles of national patents which must be litigated in each state and, in most cases, be translated into each national language.

Speaking at the Luxembourg meeting, UK intellectual property minister Baroness Wilcox said the creation of a single European patent and patent court will be crucial for UK industry. “We support a European patent system which gives real benefits for business, consumers and the economy,” she said. “It is vital to offer businesses the same access to patent protection in their home market of Europe, as competitors in the US, China and Japan enjoy in theirs.” A Unitary patent and court system will save businesses time and money whether they are patent holders or those seeking to challenge patents. The savings to UK business are estimated at £20 million per year in translations costs alone.

Professor Ian Hargreaves, in his recent independent review of intellectual property and growth, found that establishing a Unitary patent would remove IP barriers between EU countries and could increase UK national income by over £2 billion a year by 2020.

Engineering’s call to arms
UK engineering chiefs gathered at the Department for Education last month to discuss how best to equip young people for careers in manufacturing industry and the utilities. Organised by EngineeringUK, this high-level round-table - attended by representatives from E.ON, BAE Systems, JCB, Jaguar Land Rover, Ford of Britain, the ODA, GKN, Rolls Royce, ICW UK, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Pearson UK - had the ear of schools minister Nick Gibb.

With almost half a million engineering enterprises in the UK, employing 4.5 million people, the engineering industry is one of the most significant drivers of the UK economy. Demand is such that the UK needs to recruit an additional 587,000 workers between 2007 – 2017, but falling numbers of young people available to work mean that the sector must act now to identify opportunities to attract and retain engineering talent.

Research carried out by EngineeringUK shows that young peoples’ enthusiasm for science learning dips in Year 8, the crucial decision making moment for their future career path. More needs to be done to create excitement and revitalise young people’s perception of engineering, and to provide a route-map that takes them from early years learning right through to vocational training or even a degree.

EngineeringUK’s chief executive Paul Jackson, reminds us that the businesses represented at the meeting already play a significant role in education - through outreach projects with schools, work placements, apprenticeships and the ongoing training and development of their staff. “As the future employers of today’s young people, they are well placed to help improve the content of the curriculum to meet the needs of our future engineers,” he says.

Nick Gibb assured his audience that the government remained committed to building a robust engineering and advanced manufacturing industry in the UK, and hoped that the engineering industry will help it to encourage young people to continue to study maths and the sciences and inspire them to consider a rewarding and demanding career in engineering.

We can but hope that the government remains true to its word.

Satellite broadband
A little while ago in this column, I rather slated satellite broadband, and Shawn Hunt of satellite broadband services distributor, Broadband Wherever, would like to put the record straight. Here he dispels what he believes are the four principle ‘myths’ surrounding this technology, myths that have led to the UK playing catch-up in a market that needs, in his words, “some further education”. Mr Hunt believes that satellite broadband has suffered from the past stigma of being a ‘last resort option’ and that our judgement is still clouded by ‘what was’ rather than ‘what is’.

“The set-up and running costs for satellite broadband are expensive.”
While this may have rung true at the time when the concept of satellite broadband was first introduced as a viable option, it is no longer the case today. What used to cost between £1,500 and £2,000 to set up has been superseded by a much smaller outlay of around £300 - a fraction of what it was - with monthly service costs also reduced. Moreover, the satellite broadband market has become very competitive commercially, and many providers are racing each other to the post with new exclusive plans, free servicing deals and specially discounted rates.

“The connection and performance of satellite broadband is slow”
Again, back in the early days one could expect broadband speeds of anything between 512kb/s and 1Mb/s. Today, those speeds can be “up to” 10Mb/s [
my quotation marks]. Mr Hunt cautions that the performance and speed of a satellite broadband connection is also heavily dependent on the speed and configuration of the user’s computer. Satellite broadband may well transmit data at a faster rate but if your computer isn’t up to the job it can affect how that data is received. Developments in satellite broadband have come a long way and take-up is also increasing, some satellites are now even dedicated purely to broadband connection and exclude TV channels, which, in terms of speeds, means big progress.

“Satellite broadband is very unreliable in bad weather”
This is simply not true by today’s standards. In fact, technological advancements mean that satellite broadband is far more robust that it ever was before. Providing a satellite dish is properly installed by a professional and doesn’t have an obstructed view of the sky, the user will be able to receive a reliable, uninterrupted broadband connection regardless of poor weather conditions. During very extreme weather conditions, at worst a user might expect to experience a very minimal disturbance to their broadband connection of no more than a few minutes at the very most.

“Satellite broadband is a last resort option”
It is a common misconception that satellite broadband is somewhat inferior to more traditional broadband technologies, and only designed for remote areas where other broadband services and dial-up are not available. But the opposite is true; location is not an issue nor does it matter if you live in a small town, in the middle of the countryside or in a hilly area, providing your satellite dish is installed correctly you will be able to receive a reliable, high-speed broadband connection.

Well, ok, but this writer's still not convinced about the latency issue – the time delay that compromises most interactive online activities like gaming or VoIP, which either require responses much quicker than the oft-quoted 700ms or negligible delays when conducting conversations.

Meanwhile, Cambridge Consultants has carried out successful trials of its White Space network, using the social media tools Twitter, YouTube and Skype video, to demonstrate the potential of White Space as a genuine solution to the problems of rural broadband provision, and increasingly spectrum hungry devices.

White Space frequency, the unused spectrum between TV channels, is viewed as a cost effective method for rural broadband. Built to deliver wireless broadband over local White Space TV frequencies to the village of Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, this working network links Cambridge Consultants’ headquarters, where the transmitter is based, to the village approximately 6km away.

A challenge thrown up by the new White Space spectrum, however, is avoiding interference with residents’ TV signals and professional radio microphones. To address this, the company consulted the licensing authority, and developed a database engine that pinpoints unused frequencies available for use in each locality. Cambridge Consultants' novel, low-cost ‘spectral sensing’ cognitive radio technology platform ('InCognito') enhances this capability, as it enables White Space radios to search the spectrum for channels that have interference, potentially from other non-TV and non-microphone users.

Richard Traherne, head of wireless at Cambridge Consultants, believes that White Space, as a pioneering cognitive radio wireless technology, has the potential to change the way that people communicate, especially in rural areas. "It has a wide range of applications, from healthcare to home working," he says, "and we expect to see these and other exciting applications emerge in the near future.”

Les Hunt

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