When most people hear the word “patents”, they think of pieces of paper filled with a bunch of technical lingo. But that is only a small part of the story. In fact, patents are an essential tool that enables the innovation behind many everyday activities we take for granted.
For instance, patents protect cutting-edge technologies that have been incorporated in global standards for mobile wireless communications. A patent that protects technology that is essential to a standard is called a standard essential patent (SEP). It is impossible to manufacture 4G/LTE standard-compliant products such as smartphones or tablets without using technologies covered by one or more SEP.
So why is this important? First, because without standard essential patents (and the ability to recoup high R&D costs) many of the latest mobile technologies that play a crucial role in our everyday lives would not have been developed. While invisible to the consumer, these cover many of the key technologies that make our smartphones work, like:
- Data transmission: Ericsson has several standard essential patent families1 covering improvements to data transmission between cellular phones and towers. Ericsson patents cover aspects of data-transmission technology like service-quality control, status/feedback reporting, header compression, data-packet resequencing, and the “HARQ” data-retransmission technique. Together, these 4G/LTE technologies enable 10% higher data rates and 50% higher total system throughput over previous generations.
- Carrier aggregation: Ericsson owns a number of standard essential patent families covering methods to increase data speeds by combining multiple radio channels. Mobile devices transmit signals on a designed band of radio frequencies; the wider the band, the faster the data speeds. But radio spectrum is scarce, and continuous blocks are often unavailable. Using “carrier aggregation”, network providers can assemble high-capacity networks from fragmented radio-spectrum holdings.
- Battery solutions: Mobile phones place major demands on small batteries. To conserve power, phones may enter an “idle mode” and disconnect from the network, which can delay the receipt of new data and introduce reconnection delays. Ericsson has standard essential patent families covering enhanced “sleep modes” integrated into 4G/LTE. Those technologies allow phones to ‘sleep’ without fully disconnecting from the network, allowing continued queries about the availability of new data. For instance, enhanced sleep modes enable about a 50% increase in a smartphone's battery life.
- Resource allocation: Ericsson has many standard essential patent families that address coordinating transmissions to prevent interference, delays, and dropped calls when multiple phones simultaneously attempt to access the same cell tower. Together, Ericsson technologies enable a doubling of user data rates and up to 50% higher system throughput.
In the last few decades, innovations in cellular technology have opened us up to new digital experiences: 2G allowed us to have better conversations, 3G enabled us to surf the web, and 4G has given us seamless video streaming while turbo-charging an entire ecosystem of apps and connected devices.
In the coming years, 5G will bring rich video content with zero waiting times, immersive VR experiences and a whole range of exciting Internet of Things (“IoT”) services. Standard essential patents will play a crucial role enabling the R&D at the core of this revolution. Like with previous generations of mobile communications, they will be instrumental in securing these benefits for consumers – even as the industry adapts to the new demands placed by IoT.
In just over a decade, smartphones have gone from new technology to constant companion. Ericsson has been at the heart of this transformation — and we look forward to continuing to forge the path into the future.
1 A patent family is a collection of patent applications covering the same or similar technical content.