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11 May 2020

A hi-tech Cold War will damage operators and stifle 5G innovation

Whether you believe formal standards organizations or open source initiatives are the best way to drive 5G-era mobile networks forward, the dream on both sides of the fence has been the same – a common global platform that would create massive economies of scale, and allow companies of all sizes and nationalities to participate in the value chain.

Of course, it has never worked out that way. The 2G and 3G platforms were split between GSM/UMTS and CDMA; 4G almost went the same way with WiMAX. But finally, LTE and then 5G appeared to provide a globally agreed set of mobile standards, and as networks starting to virtualize, there was the hope of an additional dose of mass-scale commonality from the cloud world.

However, there were still limits to the fully open, interoperable dream. Supposed standards like the CPRI and X2 interfaces were implemented in different ways by large vendors, leading to lock-ins and limited competition in the ecosystem. That drew operators and smaller vendors towards the open source approach, well-established in the webscale world, and the birth of groups – many under the auspices of the Linux Foundation – like ONAP (Open Network Automation Protocol) and O-RAN.

And just as hopes of true openness were high again, they were dashed by geopolitics. 5G has become a focal point for the seething hostilities between the USA and China, related to technological prowess and intellectual property, broader trade wars, cybersecurity battles, and the bigger tussle to be global top dog. In the past two years, those have resulted in direct sanctions against ZTE and Huawei.

There has been a real threat that the world would split into two hi-tech camps with high walls around the technology and intellectual property of each one, even when it comes to core standards like those of 3GPP. And now politics has co-opted the open source movement too. Just as there are reports that the USA will find a way to ensure its own companies, and those of China, can still participate in 3GPP, another danger to the unified global 5G platform has emerged.

It has come in the apparently positive announcement of yet another industry group, this one called the Open RAN Policy Coalition (see below for details). Its role is to advocate for the inclusion of open platforms in the USA’s 5G roll-out – and by implication, those of the allied nations it influences. The sub-text is clear – direct involvement by the government in influencing procurement policy, and that means building a counterweight to Huawei and China. “The US Federal Government has an important role to play in facilitating and fostering an open, diverse and secure supply chain,” says the launch announcement.

While it is positive to support start-ups, to encourage a more open RAN, and to provide operators with more choices than just Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, the movement has got rather blatantly co-opted by politicians, whose interference in technology matters rarely turns out well in any country. Just ask Indian operators, when their government periodically seeks to enforce ‘buy Indian’ mandates and steer them away from the vendors with the most mature offerings.

It would be very positive for the whole industry if the smaller vendors which are developing open RAN platforms become successful challengers to the current Chinese/Nordic industry – though all eyes must be on Samsung, which is not only leveraging O-RAN to improve its chances in the mobile networks market, but has emerged as the leading contributor of 5G patents. But to win full operator trust, vendors need to succeed on their strengths, not because of the kind of government support that China is rightly criticized for. One of those strengths will be support for truly open platforms, and if those are geo-fenced by political considerations, they will lose some of the innovation and scale which have, so far, got 5G off to a rapid start.

And meanwhile, several developments in the past week have demonstrated that it will not be easy for the mobile industry in the west to do without China. If 3GPP has to find a way to work with both China and the USA; if the Linux Foundation’s first platform-as-a-service for virtualized 5G is Chinese – how will it benefit operators on either side to announce a hi-tech Cold War?