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24 August 2021

Ericsson CEO fears west will lose out in a geopolitical standards split

One of the fears about the USA’s deteriorating relationship with China, which has resulted in intensifying sanctions against Huawei, is potential disruption to standards processes and international cooperation in organizations such as 3GPP. That could delay or weaken future 5G and 6G standards, and even lead to the mobile world splitting into two regional camps, with a return to the old days of GSM versus CDMA.

While initial fears, back in 2019, were somewhat allayed when US and Chinese engineers were allowed to attend meetings alongside one another, the risk of a split into two sets of standards, and two incompatible ecosystems, remains real. That would reduce the economies of scale for operators and vendors, limit access to innovations from the ‘wrong’ side of the world, and intensify the geopolitical tensions over key issues such as intellectual property ownership and supply of semiconductors.

The issue was highlighted last week when Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm – usually careful to stay neutral and avoid alienating customers from either bloc – acknowledged his concern that western companies would suffer from a splitting of the cellular standards efforts.

“If the tech world is fragmented east and west, then it is going to mean competition between two ecosystems,” Ekholm told Light Reading. “A Chinese ecosystem will be formidable competition for the west. It concerns me that end users – customers and enterprises – will feel it in their mobile experience.”

The situation is very different from when China was last following its own cellular technology roadmap, when it forced China Mobile to adopt the homegrown TD-SCDMA network for 3G. That under-performed, and drove Mobile to accelerate its move towards 4G – still a Chinese-centric flavor, TD-LTE, in unpaired spectrum, but a far more robust one than TD-SCDMA. TD-LTE became a central part of the 4G market, and in 5G, the influence of China on standards and IPR has become even more pronounced, with many major breakthroughs being led by vendors such as Huawei and operators like China Mobile.

This will continue into the 6G phase. “Despite strong 5G investment in the US, it’s less clear whether a Western ecosystem will keep up with the vast R&D spend in Asia – particularly China – that’s already happening,” Ekholm added.

“I am less worried about Ericsson,” he said. “Ericsson can survive. Ericsson can work [in China]. But will the technology ecosystem in the west be large enough or are we going to suffer on technology developments and productivity developments?”

As 6G beckons, the background of international tensions, which are heavily focused on strategic technology ‘races’, will only intensify patent wars. The major patent holders in cellular, such as Nokia and Ericsson, have sought to monetize their IPR more aggressively in the past decade, rather than mainly seeing it as a competitive advantage for their own platforms. Nokia’s recent lawsuit, against Chinese handset maker Oppo, came against a backdrop of geopolitical change, and the rising conversation about the shift of 5G and 6G patent power to China.

Of course, in 5G and emerging 6G technologies, the important IPR battles are fought between countries not individual companies, though the large vendors are often proxies for their whole nation or region. In the past, the USA, Europe and Japan led the league tables in cellular SEP, and often in non-essential IPR too. Since the later 4G era, China has become increasingly important, and Huawei and ZTE have overtaken almost everyone except IBM in the sheer numbers of technology patents they file each year.

There was some western panic over the rising proportion of cellular patents that were in the hands of a country that was regarded as out of step on patent protection and security – but generally, Chinese innovators were starting to participate fully in the 3GPP and other processes, contributing technology to standards or open initiatives (we should remember how much China Mobile code went into O-RAN, when wondering about the IPR issues that may emerge in future in some emerging open platforms).

In the past few years, worsening tensions between the USA and China over trade, cybersecurity and political power have led to a very different IPR landscape. There is a real prospect of two geopolitical zones of technology being created for the next generations of 5G and 6G, one based around China and the other around the USA. Both sides are already working hard, often with open or tacit government backing, to amass critical IPR. This is seen in US-based efforts to build localized Open RAN platforms, for instance.

Nowhere will the geopolitics be clearer than in the first waves of 6G development, which will, of course, generate large numbers of patent applications, some of which will evolve into SEP as standards are specified.

There are many questions. Will Chinese companies be sidelined in the 3GPP? (there has always been a certain amount of internal politicking against Huawei-sponsored proposals but so far the industry has insisted there will be no break-up of the global standards process).

Will current standards processes be appropriate for 6G, or will 3GPP and ETSI be  marginalized in an industry where open frameworks like O-RAN Alliance, and open source platforms, are increasingly influential? In these early days, while open source licensing schemes are fairly well-established, the IPR implications of initiatives that are ‘open’, but not ‘open source’, are less clear.

One area where the leading hi-tech countries will be particularly eager to amass IPR is in semiconductor design and manufacturing, especially for advanced technologies, such as 5G and AI, that are seen as strategically critical. The more Taiwan’s giant foundry, TSMC, nudges ahead of its rivals in implementing the most advanced processes, the more the USA seeks to fund and influence that company, while also encouraging Intel to leap ahead in the race. Meanwhile, China is investing huge sums in becoming more self-sufficient in chip technology.

“If further fragmentation were to take place, the whole industry would pay a terrible price,” said Guo Ping, one of Huawei’s rotating CEOs, last year. “The lesson here is that unified standards are vitally important to industry development.”