Samsung Holds Edge Over Apple in Brewing 4G LTE Patent War

As Apple prepares to release the iPhone 5 to tens of millions of eager customers around the world, its chief rival Samsung Electronics is planning to file suit against Apple for infringing on its hundreds of 4G LTE connectivity patents, an industry source told Korea Times.

“It’s true that Samsung Electronics has decided to take immediate legal action against the Cupertino-based Apple,” said the source. “Countries in Europe and even the United States ― Apple’s home-turf ― are our primary targets.”

4G LTE is considered the next global standard in mobile telephony. Though it doesn’t quite meet the standard for True 4G as defined by the international body that sets wireless communications standards, it has become universally accepted as the next step in the evolution of mobile phone service. It is already widely deployed in the US, Japan, S. Korea, Russia, eastern Europe, Brazil and a few countries in western Europe. However, laws in the US and Europe are the most favorable to suits based on 4G LTE connectivity patents.

Samsung’s decision to sue followed an announcement that Apple plans to feature 4G LTE in the version it will release in Korea. That suggests that Apple also plans to release 4G LTE-enabled versions in the US and Europe.

Connectivity patents held by Samsung on current 3G technology is deemed to fall under the terms of fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory use (FRAND), largely eliminating the prospects for patent suits that can result in sales bans or even substantial damages. However, FRAND terms are not expected to apply to 4G LTE patents.

A judge has already indicated that he sees merit in the suit filed by Taiwan’s HTC against Apple on 2 LTE-related patents. That ruling is expected to force Apple to cough up a large settlement to avoid bans on iPhones. It also sets an encouraging precedent for Samsung’s suit against Apple.

Samsung has an immense portfolio of patents relating to 4G LTE connectivity technology, one thought to number 819 as of August, according to the Korea Intellectual Property Office. That’s nearly twice as many as patents owned by Apple in that area. Apple developed 44 such patents and bought another 274 from Canadian phone-equipment maker Nortel Networks and US chipmaker Freescale Semiconductor last year.

Apple’s majority stake in the intellectual-property consortium Rockstar Bidco, which holds another 116 LTE patents, gives it control over a total of 434. That’s still only about half of Samsung’s, putting Apple at a big strategic disadvantage once the next phase of legal fireworks begin between the world’s two biggest consumer electronics giants.

Samsung is already engaged in talks with major US telecom operators to develop jointly modified-design technology for LTE services with an eye toward introducing its own 4G LTE phones. The Korean company’s global two-to-one edge over Apple in smartphone sales is expected to carry over into the next generation of 4G LTE phones. Some analysts suggest the advantage may increase based on lukewarm reviews of iPhone 5.