The winners and losers of RIS implementation: an IP management perspective

Reconfigurable intelligent surface (RIS) could transform the coverage and performance of wireless networks and has emerged as a pivotal topological advancement to bridge the gap between 5G and 5G Advanced and 6G without the expense of massive cell densification.

Several crucial IP management issues must be addressed for those hoping to build an effective portfolio in this large, complex space. In order to be successful in the game of global patent strategy, rights holders must have a clear understanding of the key players’ IP focus.

Patent trends in the United States

Following the findings from worldwide patent trends, a close examination of the US landscape is vital.

Figure 1 shows the patent application trend in the United States from 2010 to 2022. There were a total of 1,136 patent applications filed, with more than 99% of them filed in the last 10 years. The data clearly suggests a steady increase in patent applications in the United States, which follows a similar prediction trend to the global situation.

Figure 1. Yearly patent application trend (United States)

Figure 2 reveals the most active assignees in the United States on RIS-related topics. The list comprises the key players mentioned in the worldwide patent analysis (Samsung, Qualcomm and Huawei), but also uncovers some new names such as Elwha, Pivotal Commware and the California Institute of Technology.

Figure 2. Patent applications trend per assignee (United States)

In our research we also uncovered a large body of significant patents dating back to the 1990s, which describe diverse, intelligent wave-shaping methods. The use cases were slightly different, but the core concept remains the same. The active companies during this period include Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing,  who were developing patented technology for defence applications. While their work primarily focused on developing advanced radar systems that use intelligent surfaces to enhance radar performance, their patents read on some basic RIS concepts. Although some of these patents are currently expired and in the public domain, it is critical to understand and distinguish over this prior art when filing patents, creating a patent portfolio to protect key innovations or guiding development of RIS-related products that can be protected by strong IP assets.

Filing focus, claim coverage and opportunities

In order to derive deeper insight into the diverse activities of various companies active in the worldwide realm of RIS technology, Figure 3 provides an intricate mapping between specific areas of interest and most active assignees. The mapping represents the RIS portfolios of the top 15 patent holders. Leveraging deep patent information at the level of claims allows  researchers, industry IP professionals and stakeholders to gain a holistic understanding of the diverse activities underway in this rapidly evolving field – including trends, opportunities and potential collaborations within the dynamic ecosystem of RIS technology and 5G/6G patents.

It is important to note that this list serves as an illustrative example, showcasing the depth of involvement across specific areas of interest, rather than an exhaustive compilation of all companies involved. 

IP management requires a deep understanding of the filing focus, claim coverage and opportunities in a narrow space, per the details highlighted in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Key enabling RIS technologies covered by the patents filed by the most active assignees

Some of the most crowded topics that many assignees are pursuing are channel state information reporting, RIS configuration and RIS materials and hardware. There is moderate activity in the areas of localisation and positioning, sensing and control information exchange and energy efficiency and power management. Finally, there is a tiny amount of patenting activity covering key enabling technologies directed to interference mitigation, identification of RIS and security aspects, which is thus an opportunity for focusing R&D investment.

It is interesting to compare the patent filing focus of Southeast University (China), Kymeta (United States) and Ericsson (Sweden) in their exploration of RIS materials and hardware. Upon closer examination, each company has pursued a distinct and narrow focus toward implementing this key enabling technology.

Southeast University 's patents emphasise digitally programmable transmissive metasurfaces (not only reflective, as seen with other companies’ focuses), multi-mechanism phase modulation metasurface antennas and electromagnetic metasurfaces with non-reciprocal transmission phases. This showcases a drive towards versatile and adaptable antenna systems.

Kymeta's patents target modular antennas with high bandwidth, antenna transceiver architectures and unit cells with tunable capacitance devices, which underscores their commitment to efficient and modular metasurface solutions.

In contrast, Ericsson's patents focus on parallel-facing metasurface arrangements, exploring the influence of the metasurfaces’ structure on signals propagation. These differences in emphasis underline the importance of comprehending the precise scope of each patent, which is essential for making well-informed IP decisions tailored to specific strengths and applications of each RIS innovation.

Another interesting finding is that most patent holders in the RIS materials & hardware category are Chinese research institutions and universities. If they opt to file for international patent applications and to license their patents, these assets would be attractive for companies seeking to become major hardware providers for RIS worldwide. From an IP management perspective, another option would be to explore an alternative design or consider leveraging the technology created by Kymeta, Ericsson, or another supplier with solid IP assets.

Most patent holders for terahertz hardware are also located in China, with their inventions currently only patented in China. Under the anticipated vision for 6G technology, terahertz R&D efforts will very soon become the next standardisation frontier, and these patent assets will likely be prized for their early priority dates and claim coverage.  

Comparing the list of requirements from the ETSI report and RIS patent applications, it appears that the patent holders have anticipated key features and are well positioned to license their technology (when RIS standards are enforced). Close attention should be paid to the body of potential SEPs likely to be declared from the plethora of patents currently published. For many players, the 5G-advanced IP and technology race is well underway.

Business perspective

RIS implementation will have profound impact on the delivery of telecom services, with new services creating winners and losers. It would facilitate the introduction of a ‘wireless environment as a service’, with telecom operators selling service options instead of data per se. A customer could select different wireless options depending on the quality of experience needed, which would establish the wireless system parameters (e.g., spectral efficiency and energy efficiency). Combined with network slicing, the network resources could also be divided and users will be aggregated according to their quality-of-experience requirements. 

This capability and new services would benefit telecom service providers, equipment makers and consumers, as well as building and shopping centre owners where RIS equipment might be installed. Commercialisation of RIS would also reward the SEP owners covering enabling technologies. Equipment vendors should assess the various technology options currently available, the strength of their intellectual property and licensing or partnering options to  position their firm for the imminent market ramp-up.

RIS poses a financial threat to equipment vendors whose technology will become obsolete. It also creates a challenge for wireless networks that lack access to the mmWave band and the high-frequency terahertz band where Advanced 5G and 6G will operate. The new services available to pedestrians on the streets, in shopping centres and vehicles suggest that a different business model will be implemented to reward network operators, RIS equipment owners and landlords that install it. This shift will have a significant impact on the delivery of highly profitable services, such as targeted ads, and the distribution of revenue. Impacted companies should explore how to successfully plan for – and adapt to – this transformative technology. Patents provide great insight into the future and IP management holds the key to a proactive solution with a happy ending.

This is an Insight article, written by a selected partner as part of IAM's co-published content. Read more on Insight

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