The notion of "peak smartphone" is widely discussed of late, including by the Economist. Revenues are flattening with longer replacement cycles, saturating markets, resistance to Apple's price increases, decreasing prices among Android's fiercely competitive OEMs and allegedly diminishing technical improvements in successive new device models. 5G holds massive growth potential, but much of that is in industrial and IoT markets that will take at least several years to establish themselves and grow to levels that will have substantial impact on overall device and service revenues.
US, China, Japan and Korea are seizing global leadership in 5G with support of coherent and helpful industrial policies in those nations across the entire mobile ecosystem including technology development, spectrum licensing, site acquisition and operator consolidation. All these nations will launch 3GPP standard-compliant 5G services in 1Q 2019, except for the US, that might start sooner, and Japan, where the first launches are expected before yearend 2019. The first 5G smartphones will probably be sold to consumers to be sold to consumers in 2Q 2019.
Recent new technology deployments with gigabit LTE at Telstra in Australia, Sprint in the U.S. and EE in the UK highlight how much mobile communications technologies have improved since the introduction of mobile data services with circuit-switched and then packet-switched offerings from around 20 years ago. Peak and average user speeds have increased by a factor of 10,000. By way of comparison, microprocessor performance doubling every couple of years, as predicted by Moore's Law, has increased it only one thousand-fold over that period. Cellular performance improvements are therefore quite spectacular given the vagaries of connecting through the ether up to hundreds of meters, as well as processing those signals in the confines of around one square centimeter of baseband processor silicon!
At last, American authorities are also beginning to do the right thing for owners of standard-essential patents. Under the previous administration of President Barack Obama, America's agencies did the wrong thing by seriously undermining standard-essential patents in various ways. For example, this existentially threatened the independence of Qualcomm, which relies substantially on its patent-licensing business to fund long-term R&D including that in upcoming 5G mobile communications. Thankfully, President Donald Trump's administration has recognised the important need to support, not undermine, the nation's technology innovators, and uphold their patent rights, as enshrined in the US Constitution.
In a major ruling that underscores judicial independence, federal judge Richard J. Leon has just unconditionally approved the merger between AT&T and Time Warner, rebuffing the US government's effort to stop the $85.4 billion deal.
Major innovations in cellular technologies arise largely from the substantial Research and Development (R&D) investments and inventions of relatively few companies, followed by widespread collaborations including many more in the process of standard setting.
While Ericsson is a leading contributor to mobile communications standards, a US District Court in California has significantly undervalued Ericsson's standard-essential patents (SEPs) by relying heavily on flawed "top-down" valuation analysis that prorates royalties by company for 2G, 3G and 4G based on SEP counting. This analysis applies a series of inaccurate assumptions which whittle down royalty rates from an understated notional maximum in a succession of unreliable steps. The resulting rates derived are a lot lower than those found in a European court's FRAND determination for the same company in the same year (2017) and for the same 2G, 3G, and 4G patent portfolios. The differences between these US and European determinations are irreconcilable.
Radio spectrum is the lifeblood of wireless networks. Traditional methods of doling out spectrum have somewhat hindered rather than helped maximize the availability of affordable Internet access, even if this was not the case with voice and text. Instead of seeking to aggrandize auction proceeds by creating scarcity, more flexible allocations including shared as well as traditional licensed and unlicensed assignments are required.
I participated as a panelist in a session entitled, "Economists: Do They Have a Place?," at the Patents in Telecoms and the Internet of Things conference at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. on November 10, 2017. This article is substantially my remarks in that conference panel session. Before my remarks, Stephen Haber of Stanford University said that I had posed the defining question for the entire conference in an audience question-and-answer exchange the previous day. It had perturbed me to hear a panel speaker mischaracterize the communications standards as platforms of preexisting technologies upon which Internet of Things (IoT) innovation will occur. In response, I said that communications standards are rich in technology innovation and patented intellectual property.