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Ericsson CEO on 5G, Apple Suit and Net Neutrality

Re/code caught up with Hans Vestberg at Mobile World Congress for a wide-ranging interview.


Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg says he is a man in a hurry.

Sure, his company is already the leader in providing the equipment for this generation of cellular technology. But, he says, being a leader in one generation of technology can put a company in a dangerous place.

“We are sort of the old incumbents that were the winners in the first cycle of all of this,” Vestberg said in an interview at last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. “The only thing I’ve learned from all of the technology revolution is that it is very seldom that the old incumbent guys are winning in the second cycle. That’s why we are in such a hurry….We want to be the winner in the second phase as well.”

Vestberg also spoke about the need for next-generation 5G networks; his company’s lawsuit against Apple; and why the current version of net neutrality in the U.S. may not be properly designed for mobile uses of the future.

Even as most of the world is still in the early stages of deploying LTE networks, companies like Ericsson are starting to sketch out what capabilities are needed for the next generation of cellular technology, commonly dubbed 5G.

Vestberg says the next generation of cellular technology needs to be particularly flexible in order to succeed. The industry is trying to prepare for a world that will see uses ranging from Internet-connected surgery that will need high reliability and minimal delay in data transfer, as well as billions of connected devices, including sensors in crops that might only send data once every couple of weeks but also need batteries that can last for a decade before replacement.

To demonstrate the kinds of technologies that will need 5G, Ericsson set up a remote-controlled earth mover at Mobile World Congress. Inside the company’s booth, visitors could put on an Oculus Rift headset and headphones to control one of two real diggers, with one pit set up outside of the conference halls in Barcelona and a second one operating thousands of miles away in Sweden.

 Ericsson set up this remote-controlled earth mover outside of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Visitors to the booth inside the hall could strap on an Oculus Rift headset and control the digger remotely.
Ericsson set up this remote-controlled earth mover outside of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Visitors to the booth inside the hall could strap on an Oculus Rift headset and control the digger remotely.
Ina Fried

That’s the kind of set-up that needs guaranteed performance.

“It’s very different use cases and this is the same network we are talking about,” Vestberg said. “The network would be service-aware….The network has to be so much smarter.”

Of course, having classes of service runs counter to the latest version of U.S. net neutrality, which eschews the notion of prioritizing one type of Internet traffic over another.

Vestberg said that to realize the full potential of the mobile Internet over the next decade there will need to be different classes of service. The things that will happen in ten years look really different from the types of broadband issues that are at the forefront today.

“It’s not yes or no on net neutrality,” Vestberg said. “We need to have deeper discussions.”

And, even as Ericsson looks to work with the industry to define 5G, it is also in a battle with some players over royalty payments it says it is owed for the current generation of technology.

“Basically we say you cannot produce a phone without having a license with us,” Vestberg said, noting that the Swedish company holds key technology for all generations of cellular technology. “You cannot do infrastructure on mobility without it.”

But, Vestberg insists, the company is committed to licensing its technology on fair and reasonable terms; Ericsson has more than 100 companies that license its standards-essential patents.

Just ahead of Mobile World Congress, Ericsson filed a range of lawsuits against Apple as part of an escalating legal confrontation.

Apple had been a licensee in the past of Ericsson patents, but Vestberg said the company opted not to renew.

“Unfortunately, when we came to the next step with Apple to renew the cross-license, we did not agree on terms. We think we have fair and reasonable terms for them to get the cross-license with us in order for their phones to use our patents. Apparently they didn’t think it. Then you go to a third party and let the third party decide.”

Vestberg says that Ericsson in general has avoided litigation, though he notes the company is in a legal dispute with Xiaomi as well and also had a disagreement with Samsung that it settled in 2013.

Asked if anything changed with Apple to cause the standoff, Vestberg said, “We just came to the conclusion we couldn’t agree. Sometimes things like that happen.”

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