How 5G Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) Are Being Used by Telcos

Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) are key to creating interoperability and Intellectual Property (IP) protection in the telecommunications industry. To drive innovation in the 5G space, The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Working Groups (WGs) develop a variety of Technical Specifications (TSs) backed up by many important patented technologies (i.e., SEPs). This blog post provides a thorough update on the latest developments in 5G patents, detailing TS types, most common WGs, company categories making declarations, and regional analyses. Then, it discusses the future trajectory of 5G SEPs.

A Conservative Approach to 5G Technical Specifications

ABI Research classifies 3GPP Technical Specifications into two distinct categories: Foundation Specifications and Transformation Specifications.

  • Foundation Specifications: Address the bottom layer of telco protocols, such as signaling, modulation, control, user plane, data plane, switching, scheduling, channel coding, multiplexing, signal measurements, testing, policies, and network security aspects.
  • Transformation Specifications: Introduce use cases, business models, and telecommunication paradigms like service management/orchestration, network slicing, Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)/network exposure, codec, and use case-specific requirements.

When it comes to pushing for innovative 5G applications, ABI Research assesses that 99% of 5G SEP declarations are Foundation Specifications produced by 3GPP WGs.

A chart depicting the share of 5G Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) based on technical specification type

SA and CT WGs to Replace RAN

According to the ETSI IPR Online database and ABI Research analysis, roughly 172,000 5G declarations on essentiality have been made as of 2022, covering 51,000 unique patent families. 3GPP WGs have focused almost exclusively on Radio Access Network (RAN), representing 97% of 5G declarations for Rel-15, 93% for Rel-16, and 86% for Rel-17. RAN1 and RAN2 are the most influential WGs for 5G patent declarations, receiving 93% of the total 5G SEP contribution share.

At the initial stage of declaration on Rel-18, the finalized Technical Specifications (TS) primarily emphasize service requirements and use cases, with 72% of declarations made to TS coming from System Architecture (SA) WGs, while the remaining 28% are from Core Network and Terminals (CT) WGs.

A chart depicting share of 5G SEPs by 5G release

Handset/Equipment Vendors Picked up Where Infrastructure Vendors Left Off

Network infrastructure and handset/equipment vendors are, by far, the biggest SEP declarants. As of 2022, 21,373 5G declared patent families are from infrastructure vendors, which is the largest overall share based on company type. Closely trailing are handset/User Equipment (UE) vendors, with 18,772 5G declared patent families.

Infrastructure and handset/UE vendors are followed by chipset vendors, government-funded research organizations, and Research & Development (R&D) companies. Network service providers, despite their prominent role in 3GPP contributions, are far less involved with ETSI SEP declaration.

Significant 5G SEP traction picked up from 2017 to 2019, as the buildup to the global launch of 5G was underway. If you evaluate SEPs based on the 5G release timeline, it’s clear that network infrastructure vendors, chipset vendors, and government-funded organizations set the stage for 5G. These types of companies had more patent declarations for Rel-15 compared to other 5G releases. In contrast, handset vendors, R&D companies, and network service providers were more actively involved from 2020 onward for Rel-16. However, network infrastructure vendors like Huawei started getting heavily involved again in 2022.

This chart depicts 5G SEP declarations based on company type.

Most 5G SEPs Originate in Asia

Regionally speaking, Asia-Pacific dominates 5G SEPs. China and South Korea lead the pack for the number of 5G declared patent families. The United States and Europe closely trail. Between 2017 and 2022, each country/region contributed the following number of declared SEP families:

  • China: 24,000
  • South Korea: 9,700
  • United States: 6,600
  • Europe: 5,000

It’s been demonstrated that SEP declarations in the European markets have been on a downward trend for the last 2 years. On average, European companies file 1.5 TSs per patent family, which is less than half the global average of 3.3.

As the chart below indicates, SEP declarations peaked in 2020 in many regions outside of China and South Korea. This was, in all likelihood, a result of the swift uptake of 5G products (e.g., smartphones) in the consumer markets.

This chart summarizes how many declared patents and patent families each country has

Related Content:

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5G Standards Essential Patent Tracker (Market Tracker)

Country and Company Analysis of 5G Standards Contributions, Essential Patents and Strategies (Market Data)

Future Expectations

TS 38.331 - New Radio (NR) Radio Resource Control (RRC) protocol specification has been the most targeted TS to date, with 32,161 SEP declarations. TS 38.213/TS 38.214 -NR; Physical layer procedures for control/data are also popularly targeted, with 27,012 declarations and 19,661 declarations, respectively.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) patents hold a significant share in 5G SEP patent families, followed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA), and European patent offices as a group. Most declared SEP families have protection in multiple countries via WIPO-supported applications. Geopolitical factors, such as the Huawei ban, can influence companies' patent strategies, leading to a greater emphasis on licensing SEP revenue and WIPO applications.

Moving forward, ABI Research anticipates the following trends to emerge:

  • Rel-18 will finalize by the year’s end, with ramped-up TSs focused on WI/SI focus on evolution in New Radio (NR)-Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO), mobility enhancements, Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) in the end-to-end 5G system, network energy savings, sidelink, enhancements for XR, Reduced Capability (RedCap), precise positioning and time resilience, etc.
  • Rel-19 shows early potential for Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML), ambient Internet of Things (IoT), Satellite Communications (SatCom), railway communication, and integration of sensing and communication.
  • 6G R&D investment could translate to Terahertz (THz) communication, extreme energy performance, cognitive network, SatCom, etc.

Future 5G innovation, from ABI Research’s standpoint, will be driven primarily by 5G-Advanced, ambient IoT, Reduced Capability (RedCap), sidelink technologies, and AI-enabled network enhancements (to manage complex cellular systems).

Get our full analysis by downloading the presentation 3GPP Contributions and SEP Declarations: Influence Profile and Insights. This content is part of ABI Research’s Cellular Standards & Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Research Service.

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