Although most smartphone patent disputes so far have revolved around mobile operating systems, you can expect a lot more suits to focus on LTE technologies in coming months.
A report released Thursday by iRunway, a research firm that specializes in technology patent portfolios and litigation analysis, has found that Samsung and Qualcomm are far and away the top dogs when it comes to holding critical LTE patents and are well-positioned to file suits against several big-name companies, including Apple, who have lesser patent portfolios in the LTE space.
IRunway conducted its study by looking not just at the total number of LTE patents held by several firms, but also the number of "seminal" LTE patents that each company holds. The firm uses a number of criteria to determine what constitutes a seminal LTE patent, including its age, its infringement detectability, the rate at which its technology is used by other firms, and backward and forward references.
The study found that Samsung held a total of 79 seminal LTE patents, or roughly 12.15% of all 650 such patents, while Qualcomm held 81, or roughly 12.46% of all seminal patents. By comparison, Intel was the next-highest holder of seminal LTE patents, with its 36, accounting for 5.54% of all seminal patents.
Samsung and Qualcomm hold a similarly dominant space in terms of overall LTE patent holdings, iRunway found, as Samsung held 9.36% and Qualcomm held 5.65%.
The vast majority of LTE patents related to either technology designed to improve data transfer rate or spectral efficiency on LTE networks and devices. Once again, Samsung holds the most total patents in both categories, with 678 patents related to spectral efficiency and 451 related to data transfer rate. Qualcomm holds the second-largest number of patents in both categories, with 424 patents related to spectral efficiency and 260 related to data transfer rate.
What this all means is that Samsung and Qualcomm are most likely to be the aggressors in patent suits involving LTE technology over the next year.
"All of the companies making handsets will want to stay away from Samsung," says iRunway chief solutioning officer Animesh Kumar. "Samsung can get aggressive and start hitting all these guys."
One company that could be particularly vulnerable to LTE patent suits is Apple, which has been one of the most aggressive litigants in suing manufacturers of devices based on Google's Android operating system. According to iRunway, Apple has "minimal patents in the 4G-LTE domain," even after the company successfully outbid Google for Nortel's patent portfolio last year by joining forces with Ericsson, RIM, Microsoft and EMC. IRunway notes that the Nortel portfolio only includes around 150 total patents that relate to data transfer and spectral efficiency technologies, meaning that Apple could still be vulnerable to Samsung and Qualcomm even if it held complete ownership of the patents.
Samsung and Qualcomm aren't the only major players in the LTE patent space, however. Nokia, which has entered into licensing agreements with both Motorola and Qualcomm for certain LTE-related patents, dominates the portfolio for LTE network security patents, accounting for nearly half of all such patents. And InterDigital has a total of 336 LTE patents and 23 seminal LTE patents, which iRunway says is more than the total number held by LG, Nokia, Sony and Apple, among others. Since InterDigital is currently planning to sell off its patent portfolio, iRunway concludes that it "could be a strategic addition to any company that is looking to monetize and/or defend its competitive position in the market." And finally, iRunway finds that Ericsson has a fair number of LTE patents with around 210 total patents and 29 seminal patents, putting the company in good position to license out its technologies to others.
LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution, is essentially a bridge from 3G technologies, such as HSPA+ and EV-DO Rev. A, to the 4G IMT-Advanced technologies that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) says will deliver consistent speeds in the 100Mbps range. LTE service availability has been spreading quickly in the United States over the past two years as all four major carriers now have plans to offer services by 2013 at the very latest.
Verizon, the first carrier to commercially offer LTE, now covers more than two-thirds of the American population with its LTE network and plans to have its entire 3G footprint upgraded to LTE by the end of next year. AT&T offers LTE services in 35 major U.S. markets and its slated to launch service in at least three more soon. Sprint hasn't yet officially fired up its own LTE network but will likely start offering services in four markets in the near future since the company has already announced its first two LTE-capable handsets this month. And T-Mobile, with its acquisition of extra AWS spectrum in the wake of the failed AT&T merger, is poised to offer its own LTE services sometime in 2013.
Brad Reed covers Google, wireless carriers and mobile applications for Network World. Be sure to check out Google Reed-er, a blog filled with his ramblings on Google and whatever else he feels like discussing. Follow him on Twitter at @bwreednww