Nortel Networks Corp. is looking at selling all or part of its coveted library of wireless patents as the insolvent telecommunications equipment company moves into the final stage of liquidation.
In a statement Thursday, the Toronto-based company said it is "exploring strategic alternatives to maximize the value" of nearly 4,000 so-called patent families related to next-generation wireless technology, know as long-term evolution (LTE). People familiar with the company's plans said it is considering a range of options, including an auction of the patents, a joint venture with a new partner or long-term licensing agreements with wireless companies.
"Nothing has been decided yet," said one person close to the company. A Nortel spokesman declined to comment.
If Nortel opts to sell the patents, it will mark the end of a storied 128-year-old communications company that rose to global prominence in the 1990s with digital innovations in telephone-switching technology and then floundered after the collapse of dot-com mania.
Lawrence Surtees, a telecom analyst at IDC Canada said if the company sells the patents, "there's nothing left for it to do. There's no more Nortel."
It is difficult to put a price tag on Nortel's patents because the products they support are still in development. But industry experts estimated the patents could fetch as much as $1-billion (U.S.) if a bidding war is triggered.
According to sources, wireless giants such as Nokia Corp. and Telefon AB LM Ericsson have privately expressed interest in acquiring the patents to protect their purchases last year of various Nortel wireless assets. It is believed that the new owners have short-term licensing rights to the patents. A spokesperson for Nokia declined to comment and an Ericsson spokesperson could not be reached.
Another potential bidder is Research In Motion Ltd., whose co-chief executive officer, Mike Lazaridis, complained to a parliamentary committee last year that the BlackBerry maker felt "snookered" when Nortel ignored its offer to acquire its wireless assets and instead sold them to Ericsson.
At the time, Nortel said it had no plans to sell its wireless patent inventory, but the company has come under increasing pressure from lenders, suppliers and stranded pensioners to salvage more money from the broken company.
Since Nortel filed for protection from its creditors last year, it has collected more than $3-billion in net proceeds by selling its various divisions to bigger foreign competitors. The company has $4.5-billion of long-term debt and owes billions of dollars more to suppliers and its underfunded pension plans.
If the company moves to sell the patents, experts warned that the company should act quickly because patent protections eventually expire.
"Every month that they delay selling these, the value decreases," said Jennifer Pigg, vice-president of enabling technologies at Yankee Group. "My question, is 'Why now?' Why didn't they start selling these off when they first started selling off the divisions?"