“China isn’t beating the United States on 5G — yet”
Said AT&T chief Randall Stephenson, revealing how much 5G is a trending topic in the telecommunication industry. The main question is: is it true? To answer it, the first step to take is to look at the core of the matter: patents, or more precisely Standard Essential Patents (SEPs).
Standard Essential Patents and 5G Technologies
The number of SEPs owned by a company is a critical factor in determining its significance within a technology field.
A Standard Essential Patent (SEP) is a patent that claims an invention that must be used to comply with a technical standard.
ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) is an independent, not-for-profit, standardization organization responsible for defining globally-applicable standards for information and communications technologies.
By collecting, cleansing and extracting information from the ETSI database, we may be able to answer the question:
Will China beat the United States in the 5G race?
Who Are the Owners of the 5G SEPs?
As mentioned above, the number of SEPs owned by the companies operating in a specific field plays an important role in providing insights into industry trends. The chart below shows the number of 5G SEPs listed in the ETSI database. Simple patent families are taken into consideration. (updated to 2019/4/1)
A simple patent family is a group of patents that are considered to cover a single invention: the technical content covered by the documents is considered to be identical and their earliest priority date is the same.
The chart reveals that Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, LG, and Qualcomm are the top five SEPs owners in 5G. Among them, Huawei holds the highest number of SEPs.
If we consider the top ten, ZTE, Ericsson, Intel, CATT, and SHARP step into the game, meaning that we already have three Chinese companies (Huawei, ZTE, and CATT) in the top ten.
Let’s take a look now at the records related to US provisional patent applications:
Considering US provisional applications in place of patent families modifies the ranking. Interestingly, LG ranks now as the top one, slightly outnumbering Huawei. It is clear that not many companies are declaring their 5G patents in the form of US provisional applications.
When Did These SEPs Emerge?
A look at the priority dates might give us a glimpse into the early developments of 5G:
The detailed work plan for Release-15 — the first draft of the 5G specifications — was agreed by 3GPP group members during the TSG#72 plenary meeting on 27 June 2016. This event can be considered as the beginning of the 5G era.
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is a standards organization which develops protocols for mobile telephony. Its best-known work is the development and maintenance of GSM and related 2G and 2.5G, 3G, 4G, and 5G standards.
The first chart informs us that only some of the technologies disclosed in the SEPs were invented after the beginning of the 5G era.
By sorting the data according to whether the patent families showed up after or before TSG#72, we notice that in the first case there are three Chinese companies (Huawei, ZTE, and CATT) entering the top four, while in the second case the top four companies are Nokia, LG, Samsung, and Huawei.
Are They Equally Valued?
To accelerate the transition into the 5G era,
the first roll-out of 5G networks and devices will be brought under Non-Standalone (NSA) operation, which is to say that the 5G networks will be supported by existing 4G infrastructure. Thus, 5G-enabled devices will connect to 5G frequencies for data throughput but will still use 4G for non-data features such as connecting to the base stations and servers.
There’s a high possibility, thus, that some of the older 4G LTE-related SEPs will be reused. The chart below shows how many 5G SEPs have also been declared as 4G LTE-related SEPs:
Currently, almost half of the SEPs have been declared under the 4G LTE specification. Some of the companies submitted over 50% of their 4G SEPs as 5G SEPs. The rest of them have a small percentage of 4G LTE-declared SEPs.
If we only consider quantity of SEPs declaration, this report provides observation that China is actually outperforming the United States in the 5G race currently. The SEPs landscape, however, is transforming every month: stay tuned for our monthly report, right here on our website, to follow the latest developments.