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5G patent chest-beating is an unhelpful distraction

The constant propaganda sent out by the big kit vendors has recently moved onto 5G patents and the latest claims are more unhelpful than ever.

A couple of weeks ago Huawei flagged up a report from the European Patent Office entitled ‘Digital technologies take top spot in European patent applications’. The reason it did so was to bring attention to the table at the end of it that had Huawei as the clear leader among all companies when it came to patent applications to the EPO last year.

Then this morning Nokia sent out a press release headed ‘Nokia announces over 3,000 5G patent declarations’. Specifically the declaration was of 3,000 patent families to ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) that are essential for 5G and this milestone was positioned as a major step forward from the previous one six months ago concerning 2,000 patent declarations.

There followed a bunch of self-promotion and generic quotes from Nokia bigwigs about how into R&D they all are and, by extension, what a great company it is. The clear intention was to create the impression that Nokia’s 5G R&D efforts have improved by 50% in the last six months, but it’s very difficult to verify that claim since it contains so many unknowns.

Were the 2,000 patent declarations also ETSI 5G essential families or something else? What even is a patent declaration – is it an application or a full patent? If we are comparing apples with apples and the two milestones concern exactly the same type of claim, how has Nokia suddenly managed such a dramatic uptick in its 5G R&D efforts?

At least Nokia’s claims concern the 5G standard. Huawei’s big achievement was merely to file more applications for all kinds of technology with the EPO than any other company. Anyone can file a claim, but that says nothing about the utility or viability of the patent in question and, if a company was determined to win a given patent application race, it could just order loads of its employees to file applications for any old rubbish.

Ericsson has yet to join in this patent pissing competition via press release and when we asked it for comment we were directed to this blog post from October last year, entitled ‘Why you shouldn’t believe everything you read about 5G patents’. In it Christina Petersson, CIPO and Head of IPR & Licensing at Ericsson, argues that when you apply certain essentiality filters, Ericsson comes out on top when it comes to 5G patents.

We might be a bit thick here at Telecoms.com, but we find all these claims and counterclaims totally confusing and impossible to derive any useful conclusions from. So we asked around the industry and were relieved to find that we’re not alone, even among people whose job it is to understand this stuff.

Our instincts about the Nokia announcement were supported, specifically that they may well be comparing apples with oranges and disguising that fact with slippery PR language. For those claims to have substance they needed to be a lot more specific. On top of the vagueness surrounding the 2,000 milestone, we don’t know if those 3,000 patent families are unique to 5G or just recycled legacy patents.

This apparently happens a lot, you see. 5G wasn’t created in a vacuum, it stands on the shoulders of 4G and many of the patents that concern the underlying physics of lobbing voice and data over the air from a transmitter to a phone and back are derived from even earlier generations. So, many of the technologies required to make 5G work were actually invented decades ago, but still apply today. That’s fine, but if participants in the patent Olympics are counting old patents among their big 5G achievements that’s cheating, surely.

Then you have the matter of where the patent applications are filed. It’s easy to file a patent, but a lot harder to have it granted. That involves getting a lot of things right and jumping through a lot of bureaucratic hoops. In principle you could literally write a claim on the back of a fag packet and hand it in, and that would count as an application. Europe seems to set the gold standard when it comes patent processing rigour.

Around half of Huawei’s 5G patent applications seem to have been made in China, however, and they account for half of all such applications made in China. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, it’s worth noting that Samsung and LG, which are in the top three 5G patent applicants alongside Qualcomm, have hardly filed any applications in Korea. It’s almost as if the barrier to entry for patent filing in China is lower.

Apparently things didn’t used to be like this. There were no press releases talking up how many patents a company had filed back in the day, and such things weren’t used as a proxy for general R&D competence. The impression we get is that it was kicked off by Huawei, which is showing an increasing fondness for chucking thinly supported claims around, and the likes of Nokia feel compelled to return fire.

So why would Huawei, which still seems to be on top despite the best efforts of the US government, feel the need to resort to such questionable tactics to inflate its public image? The answer probably lies in its increasing belligerence in the face of President Trump’s provocations, as illustrated by its recent decision to file a lawsuit against Verizon. Again this is unprecedented, as telecoms vendors tend not to sue potential customers.

There has been a steady drip of propaganda positioning Huawei as the clear 5G technological leader. The message seems to be that if countries allied to the US decide to ban Huawei from their 5G networks, that move will put them at a significant disadvantage against those who don’t. Additionally it tells the US that Huawei is doing just fine regardless and strikes a general tone of defiance.

The fact that this patent war is being waged in Europe probably isn’t a coincidence either, as that is the primary battleground in the geopolitical battle of wills between the US and China. Every time a European country refuses to ban Huawei that represents a win for the Chinese state and its belt-and-road strategy of economic imperialism.

The fact remains, however, that nearly all of the patent announcements being chucked out there are largely meaningless given the lack of qualification and context attached to them. Most patent applications made now won’t be processed for around four years, and it’s only then that we’ll know who the 5G technology leader is. Until then the industry would be well advised to take any such claims with a big pinch of salt. We certainly will.

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2 comments

  1. Avatar Michael 26/03/2020 @ 7:33 am

    this article suggests that Huwaei’s claim that it’s ahead by 1 to 2 years is propoganda and untrue but industrial analysis have also stated that. It’s been published in well know news outlets. Huwaei is the only 5g vendor that offers end to end turn key solutions at a competitive price. it makes its own kit. example of how advanced they are is their 5g base stations which are very light and more efficient than their rivals.

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