One of the fears about the USA’s deteriorating relationship with China, which has resulted in intensifying sanctions against Huawei, was that this would disrupt standards processes and international cooperation in organizations such as 3GPP. That could delay or weaken future 5G and other standards, and even lead to the mobile world splitting into two regional camps, with a return to the old days of GSM versus CDMA.
However, the US government recently said US firms could work alongside Chinese ones in standards bodies without requiring special clearance.
“The United States will not cede leadership in global innovation,” said Wilbur Ross, the US Secretary of Commerce, in his statement about the decision. “The Department is committed to protecting US national security and foreign policy interests by encouraging US industry to fully engage and advocate for US technologies to become international standards.”
“If further fragmentation were to take place, the whole industry would pay a terrible price,” said Guo Ping, one of Huawei’s rotating CEOs, during a recent press conference. “The lesson here is that unified standards are vitally important to industry development.”
Meanwhile, the US government has been actively supporting alternative de facto standards emerging from the open source world, notably Linux Foundation’s O-RAN, ut as platforms in which US companies have greater influence throughout the stack. Although Qualcomm, in particular, is powerful in 3GPP standards, its success as a mobile chip provider is not mirrored by US-based RAN and core providers.
As networks become more software-defined, interfaces and architectures defined in Linux Foundation will become as significant to market power and intellectual property as the radio standards. And that could boost the largely US-based independent O-RAN flagwavers, such as Parallel Wireless, Mavenir and Altiostar, and help create an ‘America-first’ mobile platform to rival Huawei and ZTE (though more realistically, this will succeed if true US leaders like Cisco and Intel buy up the start-ups; otherwise Nokia, Samsung and ZTE are better placed to gain significant market share based on O-RAN support).
Meanwhile, as RAN architecture choices become bizarrely politicized, the US State Department has been trying to drum up support for its ‘Integrated and Open Networks’ (ION) concept. This is effectively a diluted version of open RAN, which aimed to attract support from Nokia and Ericsson for an architecture that excluded Chinese intellectual property, but did not involve as many trade-offs for the leading OEMs as a fully open ecosystem. However, there seems to be limited momentum behind ION, especially as Nokia has put its weight behind fully-fledged O-RAN.
LightReading said sources familiar with the State Department’s ION proposal described the initiative as a “truce” between the traditional, integrated approach and a disaggregated, cloud-based architecture. But US standard bearer Cisco said it was not participating and Samsung and Nokia, both O-RAN backers, would not comment. Bob Everson of Cisco said he had reservations about the integrated elements of the idea, since his company wants full disaggregation of hardware and software (and has no capability in the specialized hardware element of a traditional RAN).
However, US attorney general William Barr, who once floated the idea of the US state acquiring Nokia or Ericsson, is also a supporter of ION. Both ideas flow from his belief that O-RAN is not yet ready for large-scale deployment and so an interim solution, which excludes Huawei and encourages US start-ups, but also engages the major vendors, is needed for immediate deployability. He is particularly concerned with providing regional and rural operators in the USA – which unlike the national MNOs, have been allowed to use Chinese equipment until this year – with an easier path to replace their networks.
“Although the ‘open RAN’ approach is not a solution to our immediate problem, the concept of ION holds promise and should be explored,” Barr said recently.
Barr is taking an opposing view to that of influential White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, another Trump appointee, who has proposed using open RAN technology from US companies only in new networks, and claimed to have support from AT&T, Microsoft and Dell.