The Open Patent Alliance (OPA) has a lofty goal: to support the spread of mobile broadband with the formation of 4G patent pools, which will prevent costly legal bickering over intellectual patent rights.
The alliance has been working on such a pool for WiMAX since 2008 and hopes to add LTE to its roster in the coming years. So far, the OPA has added industry heavyweights such as Clearwire, Cisco, Intel and Samsung to the WiMAX patent pool effort and is moving ahead with negotiations for collective patent agreements.
Wireless Week spoke with OPA President Yung Hahn about how the consortium’s efforts are coming along, what impact a patent pool could have on the 4G ecosystem and whether the fragmented efforts in the LTE arena will ever coalesce into a unified front. Here’s an edited transcript of the discussion.
Wireless Week: What progress is the OPA making on its WiMAX patent pool?
Yung Hahn: The WiMAX patent pool effort is a good six to nine months ahead of the LTE patent pool and could potentially be completed by the end of this year. For the past year, there have been about 20 companies in various cities around the world meeting every month to negotiate a communal license.
WW: The last time we spoke, you said you expected the LTE patent pool to narrow down from three players to two. That hasn’t happened yet. What’s going on with the LTE patent pool?
Hahn: I had expressed a concern about the three patent pool efforts for LTE. I’ve been trying to advise that three separate efforts doesn’t really help, and had some good reception. I do believe it’s going to narrow. While I’m not picking a winner, within the next several months I fully expect the LTE patent pools to go from three to two. Whether it will go from two to one by year end is unlikely.
The WiMAX patent pool will be done by the end of this year, but LTE won’t have coalesced into a single, complete effort for six to nine months after that. I have it targeted for September of next year.
WW: WiMAX networks are already being deployed. Should we be worried that the WiMAX patent pool hasn’t completed negotiations? What’s the ideal timing for a patent pool?
Hahn: There’s nothing worse than building a patent pool and then sitting around and waiting for volume. The timing is critical and I think we nailed it for WIMAX. The thing is to have the WiMAX patent pool in place by the end of this year so we catch it early enough.
A patent pool like this becomes very useful when volumes begin to significantly pick up.
If there’s a significant ramp in volume, the risk of litigation can increase substantially. A patent pool is a proactive way to manage risk so we can go on doing business, rather than using other measures like litigation that tend to have much higher risk.
WW: The OPA is going after holders of essential patents for the patent pools. What exactly does that mean?
Hahn: Patent pools typically cover the essential patents for a given standard. There are also nonessential patents for a given standard. You see litigation for both, and the patent pool will not stop litigation around nonessential patents.
Essential is not just an adjective, there are a set of legal tests that can determine whether a patent is essential or not. The WiMAX patent pool is based on the IEEE 802.16 documents as well as the interoperability profiles that have been developed by the WiMAX Forum. They define an interoperable standard and attempt to pool patents that relate to that interoperable standard, which impacts infrastructure, test equipment and devices. I would use the term essential for patents that relate to that standard.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that patent pools are a silver bullet and can work for all tech categories: In the case of WiMAX, we believe it can be useful. One of the reasons we kicked off the WiMAX program so aggressively is because we wanted to do a similar thing for LTE.
Filed Under: Industry regulations, Infrastructure