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Ericsson’s patent pool is far from the new start the IoT needs

Qualcomm signs up, but not Google or Apple – or even Nokia

Analysis There are many interesting aspects to the announcement that Qualcomm, among others, is joining Ericsson’s Avanci patent pool scheme.

Some of these appear contradictory. On the one hand, Avanci illustrates how the old patent structures of the mobile industry will no longer be fit for purpose for the Internet of Things (IoT). Closed, secretive systems which were stretched to breaking point by cheap handsets will be broken by billions of sensor modules and a wide range of industrial stakeholders. As if to ram home the point, Qualcomm, to whom patent pools are anathema, is to join this one.

But if we were looking for a bright new dawn of open licensing deals and broad pools, we would be disappointed – after all, the companies behind Avanci are all traditional mobile players with significant patent portfolios to protect and monetize. Premier among them, Ericsson, was the instigator behind the system, which it launched as a then-unnamed patents marketplace in February.

It launched a virtual licensing platform which it aims to establish as a dominant "independent" mechanism for coordinating IPR across many areas of IoT standards, as they relate to connected devices for vertical markets. This was positioned as a way to address the fragmentation of patent holdings which will exist across the many and varied IPR holders in the industrial IoT.

Mobile players have had an arms-length approach to vertical markets in the past, building their cellular networks as generic platforms which would deliver voice and broadband to users in any sector, with no particular optimization for any (except in a few cases like GSM-R for railways). But in 5G, it is clear that the mobile broadband model will be running out of steam in terms of its increasingly challenging cost:revenue ratio, and operators and vendors will both look to closer relationships with vertical industries, particularly via the mobile IoT, to extend their business cases.

This involves a bitter struggle to achieve pole position in a complex value chain. The operators’ have the best spectrum and their sup-pliers understand how to make a radio network behave, but the manufacturers, transport operators, auto makers, city authorities and so on also have powerful ecosystems and customer bases, and want to retain control of their service delivery, client relationships, branding and profits. One of the weapons in this battle to drive the IoT – epitomized by the tensions between Silicon Valley and Motor City in the connected car space – will be patents.

However, the participation of Google and the web players, with their love of open source, and the sheer variety of IPR involved in the IoT, will make it impossible for any clique to achieve the closed-doors power of the current cellular industry patents system. So the companies which thrived in that world need to adapt their behaviour – before anyone else steals their thunder.

Ericsson’s marketplace

So there are all kinds of ironies about Ericsson, one of the bastions of the mobile industry’s traditional structure, setting itself up as the guardian of IoT licensing processes. But the firm increasingly wants to place itself at the centre of the IoT web, offering services and coordination between many different segments, and its licensing platform is just another example of that. Ericsson also doubtless sees the new organization as a useful channel to market for its own patents.

Its system will license standardized technology for the industrial IoT to device manufacturers to encourage the growth of the ecosystem and reduce the risks for companies entering the space. There will be a revenue sharing model for those contributing patents, and those organizations will avoid the cost and complexity of managing their own licensing. There will be flat per-unit licensing fees for the verticals, designed to reflect how much of the connectivity technology a device uses, said Ericsson in the spring.

Avanci is headed up by by Kasim Alfalahi, who left his role as Ericsson’s chief intellectual property officer to run the new platform. “We are initiating this marketplace following discussions with both wireless industry players and key players in industry verticals,” he said.

So far, the vertical players are notable by their absence. The new supporters are Qualcomm and InterDigital, both stalwarts of the 3GPP standards and patents, plus ZTE, which has a growing presence in that area too, and Dutch operator KPN.

Avanci’s aims, and Ericsson’s

Avanci is now being a little more precise – and modest – about its near term aims. Its initial focus will be on the 2G, 3G, and 4G cellular patents surrounding connected cars and smart meters, before it expands into other IoT markets and verticals.

Currently, it is not projecting any estimates of potential royalty levels, or what sort of revenue the pool might return to the IP holders. But despite the power of the new joiners, this remains firmly an Ericsson venture – five of the seven leadership team members are former Ericsson staffers.

Ericsson, to be fair, isn’t being particularly coy about the purpose of Avanci for its business, noting that “this will be an additional go to market model for Ericsson, continuing to build on its IPR and Licensing business strategy to secure a fair return on its R&D investment”.

The company’s IPR licensing accounted for SEK14.4bn (around $1.68bn) in 2015 revenues, a fraction of Ericsson’s total net sales of SEK246.9bn (around $28.8bn at today’s exchange rates, but nearer $30bn at the time) and its operating income of SEK 21.8bn ($2.54bn). However, back in 2011, the IPR figure stood at SEK 6.2bn ($720m), so it has effectively doubled IRP revenue in four years, at a time when its core businesses are under pressure.

In a market of commoditization and tough competition, IPR, software, and services need to be Ericsson’s focus, and using the likes of Avanci to ensure that its patents remain integral to IoT deployments will help guarantee revenues, as well as influence over future platform directions.

And if it can achieve a widely accepted single-licence solution to help companies navigate the legal minefield of IoT patents, continuing IPR power for the Swedish giant may be a small price to pay.

The challenge of royalties in IoT

But there’s the rub of course – to achieve its goals, the pool needs to attract a wide range of companies whose patented inventions are feeding into connected devices, not just the traditional makers of modems and surrounding cellular technologies. It has already been seen, in smartphones, that the falling prices of devices cannot sustain a system where every component has a separate royalty, and this will be even more true in the IoT. If Avanci is focused narrowly on 3GPP-type technologies, while GE, for instance, or Ford Motor has a separate patent pool for their area of the IPR land-scape, chaos will ensue, or at least a royalty burden which is impossible for makers of tiny modules priced at a few dollars or less.

Avanci is somewhat vague about such issues for now. It says that it will support FRAND terms (fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory), of course, and that members can expect a transparent flat-rate process, with fees based on what value the patents bring to the technology at hand – though that, in itself, seems subject to contention and possible lawsuits in future.

A graph on the Avanci website indicates that the fee will be based on the benefits of connectivity, the increasing mobility, and the amount of use, but the royalty rates have not been confirmed yet and may not be made public.

Alfalahi said: “Since we began in April, we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from both IoT device manufacturers and patent owners to our streamlined licensing solution. With Avanci, something that would require time and resources to negotiate with many technology holders can now be done in one place, with one licence.”

It will be interesting to see whether Nokia and Huawei join Ericsson and ZTE in an uneasy partnership over IoT patents (and other IoT big-hitters like Intel, MediaTek, Apple and so on). Recent history has shown that, despite the influence of Google and Apple over the mobile market, the 3GPP giants still derive huge power from their patents. Apple has been defeated by Nokia in patent battles and bruised by Ericsson. There is still no way to build a cellular de-vice and get around these companies, and insofar as the IoT will be cellular, that will remain true.

But there are two flies in Ericsson’s ointment. Much of the IoT will not be mobile and therefore will often not require cellular, relying instead on fixed links or wireless in unlicensed spectrum. In these areas, different IPR systems and leaders prevail.

China’s response will be crucial

The other is China, where a great deal of IoT and 5G R&D is being conducted. It is encouraging that ZTE is supporting Avanci, but we can expect Chinese authorities, and its large ecosystem of device and chip vendors, to harness the IoT to try to rewrite the rules of a technology game which has traditionally left them over-reliant on western inventions and IPR.

China and South Korea have been proposing antitrust policies which would require vendors to license their patents and technologies more openly and at lower cost, if they wish to trade in these two markets. Both are too important to ignore – China for its sheer size and the number of manufacturers and operators it houses; Korea for its advanced technology base and the weight of Samsung and LG.

And where China goes, others follow, with Brazil and India said to be considering similar actions to reduce reliance on western companies’ technologies, and the licensing fees paid to them, while safeguarding against unfair business practices by major IPR players. In particular, Korea and China are introducing two important laws – set values for standards-essential patents (SEP), and the requirement that, if a unique feature (such as Apple’s slide-to-unlock) is considered “essential” or “dominant”, it must be licensed to others.

Such stipulations could have a significant impact on how companies design IoT devices and license their technologies. And the more thorny the issues become in the cellular IoT, the more the unlicensed spectrum community, with its smaller base of patents (especially in low-power wide area networks) and more open approach, will have the opportunity to race ahead, attracting new vendors and deployers by offering far lower barriers to entry.

Copyright © 2016, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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