Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that explores the sometimes obtuse process of standardizing, patenting and licensing cellular technologies. 

Answers to the questions you always wondered but were afraid to ask

Patents spark joy in the eyes of the innovators! Patents not only recognize innovators’ hard work but also provide financial incentives to keep inventing and continue to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, patent licensing often referred to as Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) licensing, has recently gotten a bad rap. The whole IPR regimen seems mystical, veiled under a shroud of confusion, misinformation, and of course, controversies. But tearing that shroud reveals the fascinating metamorphosis of abstract concepts developing into technologies that transform people’s lives. This process, in turn, creates significant value for the inventors.    

I have been exposed to the cellular IPR in my entire career. And I thought I understood it well. But my research regarding the various aspects of the IPR journey, including their creation, evaluation, and licensing, was a real eye-opener, even for me. In a series of articles, I will take you through the same amazing journey that will demystify the myths, the misunderstandings, and the misinterpretations. I will use the standardization of 4G, which has run its full course, and that of 5G, which is ongoing, as the vehicles for our journey. So, get on board, buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Organizations that build cellular standards

It all starts at the International Telecom Union (ITU), an arm of UNESCO (www.unesco.org), which is a part of the United Nations. For any new generation of standard (aka G), ITU comes up with a set of minimum performance requirements. Any technology that meets those requirements can be given that specific “G” moniker. For 4G, these requirements were called IMT-Advanced, and for 5G, they are called IMT-2020. In the earlier days of 4G, there were two technologies that got the moniker. One among them was developed by IEEE, called WiMAX, which no longer exists. The other was developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the most important and visible global cellular specifications organization.  

3GPP, as the name suggests, was formed during 3G days, and has been carrying the mantle ever since. 3GPP is a combination of seven telecommunications Standard Development Organizations (SDO), representing telecom ecosystems in different geographical regions. For example, the Alliance for Telecom Industry Solutions Association (ATIS) represents the USA; the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) represents the European Union and so on. In essence, 3GPP is a true representation of the entire global cellular ecosystem.

3GPP develops specifications that are then affirmed as relevant standards by SDOs in their respective regions. 3GPP’s specifications are published as a series of Releases. For example, Release 10 (Rel. 10) had the specifications that met the ITU requirements for 4G (IMT-Advanced). 3GPP sometimes also gives marketing names to a set of these releases. For example, Rel. 8 – 9 were named as Long Term Evolution (LTE), Rel. 10-12 were named as LTE Advanced, and so on. The Rel.15 includes the specifications needed to meet 5G requirements.

To summarize, ITU stipulates the requirements for any “G,” 3GPP develops the specifications that meet those requirements, and the SDOs affirm those specifications as standards in their respective regions.

How the standards building process works

With those many organizations and their representatives involved, standards development is a long, arduous, and systematic process. 3GPP has several specification working groups focused on different parts of the cellular system and its interworking, including radio network, core network, devices, and others. The members of these groups are representatives of different SDOs.

Now coming to the actual process itself, the ITU requirements act as goals for 3GPP. The efforts start-off with members bringing their proposals, i.e. their innovations, to achieve the set goals. For example, for 4G one of the proposals was techniques to use OFDMA for the high-performance mobile broadband. These proposals are presented in each of the relevant groups. There are usually multiple of them for any given problem. All these proposals are discussed, closely scrutinized, and hotly debated. Ultimately, winning ideas emerge through a consensus process. One of the members of the group is then nominated to be the editor, and he/she distills the winning ideas into a working document. That document is continuously edited and refined in a series of meetings, and when stable, is published as the first draft of the specification. Publishing the first draft is a major milestone for any release. Companies usually start designing their commercial products based on the first draft.

The standard refinement process continues for a long time even after the first draft, this is akin to how software “bug fixing” and update process works. Members continuously submit contributions aka bug-fixes to refine the draft. Typically, these contributions are substantially higher in volume than the initial proposals. This is because the latter are radically new concepts or innovations, whereas the former could be trivial, such as editorial corrections. Once all the bug-fixing is done, the final specification is released.

As evident, for any new innovation to be accepted and included in the standard, it has to go through a rigorous vetting and has to withstand the intense scrutiny by peers and competitors. This means the inclusion is an explicit recognition by the industry that the said technology is a superior solution to the given problem.

3GPP contributions and record-keeping

3GPP is a highly bureaucratic organization, with a robust and well established administrative and record keeping system. But for historical reasons, the system is not equally rigorous throughout the process. For example, record keeping is nominal until the creation of the first draft. The proposals, ideas, contributions presented during that time are just tagged as “considered” or “treated,” without any specific recognition. However, the record keeping gets very structured and rigorous after the first draft.  The bug-fixing contributions that are adopted into the specification are tagged with more official-sounding names such as “approved,” no matter whether they are very trivial or significant. These uneven record-keeping and naming practices have created some very simpleton, amateurish and really flawed IPR evaluation methods. More on this in later articles.

Nonetheless, 3GPP specification development is a consensus-based, democratic process, by design. This necessitates collaboration among members, who many times have opposite interests. This approach indeed has made 3GPP a great success, resulting in the cellular industry to excel and thrive.

With the basic understanding of the organizations and processes in place, we are now well equipped for the next part of our IPR journey—understanding how developing standards is a system design endeavor solving end-to-end problems, not just a collection of disparate technologies, as we are given to believe. And that’s exactly what my next blog in the series will explore. Be on the lookout!


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