Creating Order Out of WiMAX/LTE IPR Chaos

By Robert Syputa

There is a growing perception that LTE is pushing down on WiMAX momentum. But perhaps it is LTE that is being driven by the accelerated development of WiMAX intellectual property rights and the quick strides the ecosystem is making in transforming these technologies from concept to reality. And maybe the influence of 2G/3G mobile communications IPR is driving the rapid development of various next-generation technologies used in WiMAX devices and networks.

Patents provide exclusive rights to use an invention. Standards and industry groups have come to value patents based on whether they are clearly used in, or essential to, the standard. This values patent portfolios largely by the number of patents.  However, fundamental patent value stems from the strength of the claims contained within the patent, and, ultimately, from the degree of breakthrough brought to the field upon which further patents depend. Understanding of the degree of patent strength and the role played in the evolution of wireless is important. Qualcomm, Samsung, Arraycomm and Interdigital are examples of how companies can focus strategically to develop strong portfolios that deliver a product market advantage and direct license revenues. 

The IEEE 802.16 Wireless MAX (WiMAX) effort has developed a large pool of IPR that has become the baseline for next-generation communications networks. We use the term next-generation rather than next generation mobile networks (NGMN) because the emerging communications are increasingly media and location independent (i.e Internet everywhere). Companies that have developed WiMAX IPR now assert that the patents also apply to LTE as demonstrated by the number of ICs and systems under development for LTE that reuse core WiMAX experience.

A history lesson in mobile IPR

The development of 2G/3G mobile voice and data services dramatically transformed business and personal communications. However, because a few companies invented the technologies for these services, control of IPR was limited and led to trade sanctions and exhaustive court battles. Devices have increasingly incorporated video and other technologies developed outside of the mobile industry. This has led to additional lawsuits and trade sanctions. 

The situation for wireless is not unique. Communications and electronics products in general have grown more complex and inter-dependent such that IPR infringement is likened to a 'patent thicket' problem and companies using IPR can be stung from many directions. This led to the establishment of organizations that built IPR regimen or frameworks to help companies navigate over the thicket. Frameworks included agreements that maintained infringement and royalty rights at levels that strengthened overall industry development goals. Cross-licensing agreements also played a role in moderating the cost impact of IPR and reducing conflicts. Where technology is widely used, patent pools emerged as a useful means to consolidate and manage IPR visibility, complexity and costs.

Although at first glance it may seem that IPR pools for the wireless industry have had limited success, it is important to consider that these efforts were only launched after large-scale commercial deployments began. Among the relatively small group of mobile industry pioneers that controlled critical IPR, a few key stakeholders have refused to take part in licensing pools, notably 3G licensing for WCDMA used in 3G devices and networks. While comprised of several respected firms, the exception of Qualcomm, Nokia and Ericsson has rendered the effort a valid attempt but short of becoming the framework for the industry.

WiMAX and LTE--lessons learned?

The Maravedis WiMAX & LTE IPR report issued early 2007 provided a comprehensive analysis of wireless IPR development trends and concluded that the market needed to put aside differences and establish a patent-pooling program to avoid the mistakes and challenges plaguing the 2G/3G industry. The report suggested the formation and structure of a patent pool to attract broad industry participation while addressing anti-trust concerns. The announced formation of the WiMAX Open Patent Alliance (OPA) and LTE Licensing frameworks at this early stage of next-generation commercial development are positive reinforcements of that report proposal. Both groups state goals of achieving greater transparency of IPR and a licensing regimen that conforms to FRAND fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory policies. 

The WiMAX OPA announced member companies that comprise a large portion of IPR used in IEEE 802.16e-2005. Yung Hahn, director of IP strategic initiatives for WiMAX at Intel, says that OPA is encouraging broad participation among wireless suppliers, operators and converging industries. 

The LTE Licensing alliance has released limited details of their program, but has indicated the framework seeks to limit royalties to 10 percent of devices and $10 per laptop. The recent patent licensing settlement between Qualcomm and Nokia shifts the IPR landscape. Nokia is party to the LTE Licensing framework but Qualcomm is not. Although Maravedis believes it is unlikely, it will be interesting to see if Qualcomm decides to participate in the framework and how they might affect the LTE alliance. Nokia's grant of a cross-license for its broad portfolio of IPR, including that related to WiMAX and LTE, strengthens Qualcomm's position in IPR and their ability to help shape future products and markets.

IPR ... the tip of the iceberg

While IPR frameworks may still be in their nascent stages, the strategic understanding of the field of IPR is gaining importance throughout the ecosystem. Some technology firms have elevated management of IPR to the VP level. Others have expanded the use of strategic analysis of patents to better align R&D and patent licensing with the corporate mission. Similarly, Maravedis is increasingly being commissioned to evaluate company IPR in context with market conditions so organizations can better concentrate research efforts on pioneering technology that delivers the most value to patent portfolios and products. 

Maravedis has actively participated in IPR research and analysis since its inception six years ago, and continues to mediate unbiased, informative discussions with industry representatives to dissect IPR issues from all angles.  Much can be learned from this seemingly chaotic environment by examining the successes and failures of the past to sidestep the hurdles of implementing industrywide IPR initiatives that will ease the proliferation of ubiquitous mobile data networking.

Robert Syputa is a senior analyst with Maravedis Inc., a research and analysis firm focusing on broadband wireless technologies including WiMAX, 802.20, TD-CDMA and wireless local loop systems.

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