Top wireless carriers eye 5G patent pool, but acknowledge ‘extremely tricky area’

Vodafone's Johan Wibergh, center, discusses the NGMN's progress during a press event at Mobile World Congress

BARCELONA, Spain—The NGMN association, which represents a wide range of global wireless network operators, said it continues to look into the possibility of creating a 5G patent pool intended to prevent patent-related lawsuits. However, a top executive at Vodafone acknowledged that the group’s efforts likely wouldn’t prevent lawsuits like Apple’s recent litigation against Qualcomm.

“I wish we had that type of influence, but we don’t,” said Johan Wibergh, group CTO of Vodafone and chairman of the NGMN Alliance, an association among network operators currently geared toward smoothing the deployment of 5G. “It is an extremely tricky area, and I don’t think we can prevent them,” he said of patent-infringement lawsuits related to 5G network technology.

The NGMN—which includes members like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile parent company Deutsche Telekom—announced in 2015 that it would look into IPR, or intellectual property rights, around 5G. The group said it would investigate “Standard Essential Patent (SEP) declaration and assessment” and 5G patent pools. Such patent pools have been used in other industries to smooth the patent licensing process, allowing licensees to obtain permission to use a wide range of patents essential to specific technologies.

“The IPR team will engage with relevant industry partners to develop implementation plans for the 5G IPR recommendations outlined in the NGMN 5G White Paper,” the NGMN wrote in 2015 (PDF). “Hence, the activity aims to improve 5G Standard Essential Patent (SEP) declarations, which are already in use, and to establish independent 5G SEP assessments. Furthermore, NGMN recommends to explore and to establish an appropriate 5G patent pool framework. In addition the IPR team will also address the emerging need for software licensing in the mobile industry and, in particular, as regards Open Source.”

Today here at the Mobile World Congress trade show the NGMN announced it had completed a wide range of goals last year, including its research into the IPR arena. The group said it had developed recommendations on “transparency of SEP disclosures and analysis of essentiality assessment and patent pools.”

Peter Meissner, the NGMN Alliance’s CEO, said the group would look to create a 5G patent pool, but that it would be up to vendors like Qualcomm and Nokia and others to decide whether they would commit to the effort.

Further, the NGMN has experience in this area: The group announced in 2012 the creation of an LTE patent pool to “improve transparency and predictability of royalty rates.” NGMN partners AT&T, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, SK Telecom and others joined the pool.

The notion of a patent pool is noteworthy considering patent-infringement lawsuits continue to disrupt the mobile industry. Most recently, Apple filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Qualcomm partly over patent royalties just days after the dominant chipmaker was sued by the Federal Trade Commission on charges of anticompetitive practices.

“For many years Qualcomm has unfairly insisted on charging royalties for technologies they have nothing to do with,” Apple said in a statement in January. “Qualcomm built its business on older, legacy standards but reinforces its dominance through exclusionary tactics and excessive royalties. 

Qualcomm, not surprisingly, rejected Apple’s allegations.

Other patent lawsuits are LTE and other smartphone technologies have ensnared the likes of Google, InterDigital and others.

Vendors generally have preferred to avoid patent pools in the wireless market, content to instead license their patents in an individual basis. Indeed, several vendors have built significant patent-licensing businesses.