WASHINGTON -- As Huawei Technologies Co. comes under unrelenting pressure from the Trump administration, the Chinese telecom giant has one advantage that the U.S. can't undermine: a vast, global portfolio of patents on critical technology.
Huawei holds 56,492 active patents on telecommunications, networking and other high-tech inventions worldwide, according to Anaqua's AcclaimIP. And it's stepping up pursuit of royalties and licensing fees as its access to American markets and suppliers is being restricted.
The company is in protracted licensing talks with phone-services provider Verizon Communications Inc. and is in a dispute with chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. over the value of patents. Huawei also lodged claims against Harris Corp. after the defense contractor sued it last year alleging infringement of patents for networking and cloud security.
"Patents are, at their basic level, weapons of economic warfare," said Brad Hulbert, a patent lawyer with McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff in Chicago. "They're being hurt by the sanctions that the Trump Administration imposed and saying 'You have hurt us and our ability to sell, and we can hurt back.' It's saber-rattling."
Broader national security concerns also hang over this technology battle. In some circles Huawei's outsized role as a supplier to next generation, or 5G networks makes it a potential threat either as an espionage agent or network disruption tool. Huawei has not only become a flashpoint in the middle of a 5G arms race, it's also one of several companies targeted in President Donald Trump's ongoing trade dispute with China.
Trump signed an order in May that's expected to restrict Huawei from selling equipment in the U.S. Shortly after, the Department of Commerce said it had put Huawei on a blacklist that could forbid it from doing business with American companies.
For its part, the Asian nation sees Huawei as a potent symbol of its evolution from the world's factory to a technology powerhouse, while the U.S. claims the tech company steals inventions from American firms.
"Huawei has invested a lot of money and they want to be recognized," said Jim McGregor, a Mesa, Arizona-based technology analyst with Tirias Research. "Huawei is just playing out standard business practices for the wireless industry."
Patent disputes are common in the tech industry, and the coming revolution predicted by advances in "5G" wireless technology promises to bring even more. Traditional players like Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj are ramping up efforts to get more money from their patents. Qualcomm is appealing a ruling in a lawsuit by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that threatens the licensing program that accounts for the bulk of its profits. Huawei and Samsung Electronics Co. ended a two-year royalty fight in February.
Qualcomm and Huawei are seen as two of the biggest players developing 5G that could bring not only faster speeds but bring new capabilities including remote surgery via robots and self-driving cars that talk to each other. The global ban on Huawei equipment promoted by Trump has roiled telecom companies worldwide. It's a reminder, McGregor said, that 5G relies on both the U.S. and China.