Qualcomm has been ordered to pay $20 million in damages for infringing three Broadcom patents after a US jury verdict this week.

A California court found Qualcomm infringed the patents wilfully, so a judge could treble the award, according to Qualcomm. At a hearing on 18 June, the judge is scheduled to set dates for post-trial motions. Qualcomm, a cellular pioneer and a wireless intellectual-property powerhouse, said it would challenge the findings and, if necessary, appeal. Broadcom plans to ask for a permanent injunction to stop Qualcomm from using the technologies.

The finding came as part of a string of patent disputes between the two companies. Broadcom is relatively new to the mobile-phone chip business but is quickly becoming a major rival to Qualcomm, according to In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee. Meanwhile, Qualcomm is rapidly branching out into new technologies itself.

"I'm not surprised Qualcomm steps on a few patents," Nogee said. Even with the threat of an injunction, the court defeat doesn't pose the kinds of dangers raised by Vonage's dispute with Verizon, he said. Qualcomm is too big to be forced out of business by one suit, and a cross-licensing deal might solve the problem.

The case, filed in May 2005, involves five Broadcom patents. Broadcom dismissed its claims on one patent, and the court stayed the case with regard to another, according to Qualcomm. Yesterday, the jury cleared Qualcomm on one claim regarding one of the patents.

The patent claims affect key Qualcomm products: its EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimised) high-speed mobile data chips, its QChat push-to-talk software and chip platforms for mobile multimedia, according to Broadcom.

Broadcom claimed Qualcomm used US Patent 5,657,317 to let EV-DO-based devices participate in two networks at the same time. Qualcomm used Broadcom technology covered by patent 6,847,686, for a chip architecture for video processing, in its Enhanced Multimedia Platform, a series of chipsets designed to handle multimedia on 3G multi-mode handsets, according to Broadcom.

Finally, Broadcom claimed QChat uses patent 6,389,010, which relates to a phone that can make calls over networks with either fixed or variable bandwidth. Sprint Nextel is looking to QChat as an alternative to the popular push-to-talk service on its iDEN network as it shifts focus to its CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) network, based on Qualcomm technology.