What's in store for LTE, WiMAX IPR this year?

Doesn't it seem like the mobile industry can sit down and sing Kumbaya these days? 

Once bitter enemies over patents licensing, industry giants Nokia and Qualcomm last week announced a partnership program that calls for the two to collaborate on next-generation UMTS devices based on the S60 platform on the Symbian OS. The devices will initially be targeted at the North American market--where Nokia is historically weak--while giving Qualcomm the biggest handset customer in the industry.

And for the first time in history, it appears the majority of operators in the world are moving toward one next-generation digital standard--LTE. There are no bitter and entertaining fights this year between rival standards, LTE and WiMAX (just a little bit of smack). WiMAX is finding its own home, albeit a smaller one than envisioned just a year ago, in the US, Japan, India, Russia, South Korea and countries in Europe and Africa. Heck, even WiMAX operator Clearwire won't rule out moving to LTE down the road as the two technologies have a lot in common.

Still, I can't help but wonder if this is the calm before the storm. The industry still has that sticky issue of intellectual property (IP) licensing to contend with, and it has been eerily silent on this issue.

Last Spring, Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, NEC, NextWave Wireless, Nokia, Nokia Siemens Networks and Sony Ericsson established a patent pool to provide predictable costs for licensing LTE IP. Noticeably absent are Qualcomm, Motorola and Nortel. Qualcomm has favored and always will favor bilateral agreements. Nortel indicated last spring that it would license its essential patents for LTE handsets at a royalty rate of 1 percent of a device's sales price. Motorola, which holds a lot of OFDM/OFDMA patents, hasn't been public about its plans.

The patent situation doesn't look any clearer for WiMAX either. Last June, six WiMAX firms teamed together to create the Open Patent Alliance, a group that has the goal of jointly licensing WiMAX patents so they can keep royalty rates in check and make the technology more affordable. The companies involved in the formation of the OPA include Cisco Systems, Intel Corp., Alcatel-Lucent, Clearwire, Sprint and Samsung. Huawei and Alvarion joined this month. Again, some key IPR holders like Qualcomm and Motorola are missing.

Moreover, the WiMAX industry saw its first patent lawsuit in December. Adaptix filed suit in Texas claiming that Clearwire and Sprint Nextel infringed upon several of the company's patents when the companies launched broadband wireless service to customers using 802.16 and 802.16e WiMAX standards. Specifically, the complaint refers to six patents, many of which use OFDMA technology. The company wants to recover an unspecified amount of damages for the alleged patent infringement.

Could we see a host of similar lawsuits going forward? Will the lack of a consensus on licensing hurt the industry's goal of predictable costs for these standards? Kumbaya may not be sung for too long. --Lynnette