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7 September 2021

Nokia suspends O-RAN work amid US concerns about Chinese contributors

Nokia sent shockwaves through the Open RAN community last week when it said it had suspended its work with the O-RAN Alliance, to which it is a major contributor, because three Chinese Alliance members have been placed on the USA’s entity list.

As Huawei well knows, this list is made up of companies that the US Department of Commerce (DoC) has been advised pose security threats. In the current geopolitical context, the list has grown long and heavily China-centric. US companies can only trade with entity list members if they secure a special licence, which have reportedly been very difficult to obtain in the past year.

The O-RAN members that have been added to the list – Kindroid, Pythium, and Inspur -are obscure to most western players, but are said to be involved in Chinese military technology development.

The surprise that greeted the Nokia announcement was misplaced. This has been a bomb waiting to explode for O-RAN ever since it was created from the merger of the AT&T-inspired xRAN Forum and the China-centric Cloud-RAN Alliance. That brought code from China Mobile and its ecosystem into the original platform, and since then, Chinese operators have been among the most active in testing and trialling O-RAN systems, and so inevitably their partners have also remained active in the Alliance. The five founding members of Germany-based O-RAN Alliance, which have a veto on decisions, including China Mobile, along with AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, NTT Docomo and Orange.

Last year, analyst firm Strand Consult estimated there were 44 members of the Alliance – about 20% of the total at the time – that had some connections to the Chinese government or military, and inevitably, some of them are part of Huawei’s ecosystem too. It is impossible, therefore, to avoid Chinese contributions unless the Alliance starts from scratch with a platform that weeds out all contributions from these members.

O-RAN backers such as Nokia may have hoped that, especially with a change of US government, there might be more willingness to leave certain players off the entity list in order not to disrupt an Alliance that has been seized by US policy makers as the basis for growing a homegrown mobile networks business again. But of course, a US-led O-RAN industry is being promoted partly as a way to reduce Chinese power in 5G and future 6G, so Chinese IPR lurking in the specs would present immediate conflicts.

It is possible that US authorities have specifically targeted this O-RAN trio in order to force vendors to work together to exclude Chinese code from O-RAN – even non-US ones like Nokia, which does not have to abide by DoC rules of course, but will feel the pressure from its US customers. Having lost some of Verizon’s business last year after its 5G chip mistakes, Nokia will be extremely keen not to alienate that operator, or AT&T and T-Mobile. Verizon and AT&T are both planning some Open RAN deployments, at least in small cell or rural scenarios, from late 2021 or early 2022, though it is not clear how far they will conform to O-RAN specs as opposed to building their own platforms.

Some vendors and operators may seize the opportunity to shift the Open RAN focus away from the O-RAN Alliance itself and towards other open platforms, where there might be less Chinese influence. Already, some companies have said they are working more closely with the Open Networking Foundation’s SD-RAN project, which is creating a RAN Intelligent Controller implementation, than with O-RAN, because they believe the ONF is driven by operator requirements, whereas O-RAN is becoming heavily driven by vendors, in particular (ironically now) Nokia.

Of course, Nokia may review its position, discuss with its US customers and partners, and restart its O-RAN Alliance work fairly soon. It would seem to be something the Finnish firm would like to do, given how effectively it has set itself up as the dominant vendor within the Alliance, offering nervous operators a combination of open interfaces (no more lock-in) and a far stronger track record in large-scale and complex network deployments than most challengers.

The O-RAN situation raises broader issues for industry coalitions and for full standards bodies such as 3GPP. There have been fears that the long road towards a single, global set of foundational radio standards, finally achieved in the later stages of 4G and early 5G, will be blocked by geopolitics. It still seems possible that two separate communities will develop, with their own IPR and increasingly divergent specifications – and any attempt by either the USA or China to exclude one another’s intellectual property or suppliers will hasten that process.

So far, more immediate challenges, such as US engineers being forbidden to attend 3GPP meetings alongside Chinese ones, have not emerged – indeed, in late 2019, the USA announced specific measures to enable such cooperations to continue. The DoC allows companies to sit alongside Huawei (and other entity listed firms) in organizations including ETSI, the GSMA and the ITU.

Emerging vendors, even US-based challengers, which are gaining operator attention and early projects via O-RAN, will hope that this spirit of compromise will be extended to O-RAN too, even though it is not a standards body, but an industry consortium. If the Alliance is forced to excise Chinese code and members, that is likely to lead to considerable delays to some key work items, at a time when operators are already fretting that the platform will not be fully deployable in time for their 5G timelines.

Other industry groups may eye the O-RAN issue with anxiety. For instance, the open source ONAP (Open Networking Automation Platform) project was formed in 2017 by the combining of AT&T’s ECOMP technology and a Linux Foundation project called Open-Orchestrator, which was developed by China Mobile, Huawei and ZTE.

And more broadly, it will be very difficult to separate Chinese and non-Chinese technology and influence in the bigger picture of open networks. Huawei, for instance, is a member of the Kubernetes Steering Committee within the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (part of the Linux Foundation). Kubernetes is the container management system on which many cloud-native platforms, including O-RAN, rely, and it was mandated in the recent requirements document, published by the group of five large European operators in support of Open RAN. But Huawei claims to be the fifth biggest contributor of code to Kubernetes.

Eugina Jordan, VP of marketing at US-based O-RAN vendor Parallel Wireless, told Capacity: “To address Nokia’s concern, we reasonably expect that the White House will clarify things and issue licences to allow companies to sit on the same key industry groups as Huawei in the O-RAN Alliance, just like it has done in the past for the operators’ association GSMA, standard-setting bodies like IEEE, ETSI and ISO and UN telecoms group ITU, without being in violation of the entity list rules.”

Nokia said in a statement: “Nokia’s commitment to ORAN and the O-RAN Alliance of which we were the first major vendor to join, remains strong. At this stage we are simply pausing technical activity with the Alliance as some participants have been added to the US entity list and it is prudent for us to allow the Alliance time to analyze and come to a resolution.”