Jacob Schindler

Asian tech companies have made up a lot of ground in the 4G-LTE patent landscape, according to a new analysis, with LG Electronics and Huawei leading the way. The report from iRunway, which specialises in patent litigation and licensing support, underscores the growing share of SEPs owned by East Asian entities as their efforts to play a central role in mobile standards pay off.

The data shows LG Electronics edging ahead of both Qualcomm and Samsung for the total number of granted 4G-LTE standards essential patents (SEPs) in the United States. Asia-headquartered companies own 46% of all the US SEPs in the space, iRunway found, which represents an increase in their cumulative footprint.

LG Electronics started filing 4G-LTE patents later than many of the other major players, but a concerted effort to catch up has yielded results. Looking at all 4G-LTE patents (not just those declared standards-essential), the Korean company was in third place among network equipment manufacturers in 2014, but has since leapfrogged Nokia and Samsung to beocme the largest assignee of 4G-LTE patents in that industry sector.

Only semiconductor giant Qualcomm has a bigger total 4G portfolio – a total of 3,163 US patent grants compared to LG’s 2,605. But the Korean entity is looking to make up more ground, having out-filed all other companies in every year since 2010. Overall, the top 10 assignees in the space own nearly half of the total IP assets. InterDigital is the only licensing-based business among that group.

About 21% of all 4G-LTE patents have been declared as SEPs to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Samsung is in the possession of the most declared and active SEPs, trailed by LG Electronics, Qualcomm and Nokia. It’s only when you take SEP-declared applications out of the equation and look solely at grants that LG noses into first by a single patent. Of course, what matters is not the slim lead at the time the study was published, but the fact that the company has firmly established itself at the top despite a relatively late start.

Another major newcomer in the field is Huawei, which has accelerated its 4G development over the last two years. While the Chinese company is only seventh largest when it comes to 4G-LTE portfolio size, it may be making up for that fact by taking a more aggressive approach to enforcing those rights. It is the only operating company that shows up on the list of the top five 4G plaintiffs, as a result of suits it has filed against Samsung and T-Mobile. That’s partly because other major players – LG Electronics included – have chosen to work through NPEs to enforce their SEPs.

On that subject, iRunway’s analysis of smaller players reveals that the most active Asian NPE, Japan’s IP Bridge, has a good hand to play. Its 60 4G-LTE SEPs – 56 of which are considered ‘seminal patents’ – mean it trails only InterDigital and PanOptis in the number of key 4G patents among NPEs.

The most significant aspect of LG and Huawei’s accomplishments in the 4G field is the fact that their gains have come relatively recently, when most of the other players are well-established. That momentum indicates that Asian companies are going to play an even bigger role in 5G technologies – early analysis suggests Huawei will be at the very forefront as that technology rolls out. We’re still going to see conflict and monetisation in the 4G space for many years, but by the time 5G predominates, the balance of patent power may look very different.