US tries to pick up pace in developing 5G alternative to Huawei

22-Aug-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 12:09 PM Print This Post

As the Trump administration cracks down harder on Huawei Technologies in efforts to keep Chinese equipment out of US communications networks, the race to develop a software-based technology as a 5G alternative is heating up.

The Open Radio Access Network, known as O-RAN, is virtual and software-based, linking devices to other parts of the network through cableless radio connections. In recent months, it has emerged as an option that could be the answer to Huawei.

The momentum quickened recently as Japanese retailer Rakuten reportedly scheduled a September launch for the world’s first 5G virtualised network based entirely on O-RAN. The network is expected to contain equipment made by NEC of Japan, and use software from Airspan, Qualcomm and Intel, all American firms.

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On Tuesday, the US Federal Communications Commission announced that a forum on O-RAN development originally planned for March will take place next month and will feature Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and industry officials from Rakuten, Intel, VMware and others.

The O-RAN approach is expected to be an alternative not only to Huawei, but other hardware-centred 5G tech developers such as Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and China’s ZTE.

In addition, the US-based DISH Network is building what its executive vice-president, Stephen Bye, called “the nation’s first cloud native, Open RAN-based 5G network”.

Constance Taube, deputy director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, defended Washington’s efforts to ensure network safety.

“With regard to 5G, there is no way to operate safely on a network that is incorporating untrusted goods, services. That is why the US government has taken specific actions against specific untrusted vendors … there is no comfort in operating on what you call dirty networks,” she said.

“Indeed, Huawei has a one-stop shop for 5G equipment,” she added. “But the other equipment services and software that make up 5G and other telecommunications systems exist.”

In February, Attorney general William Barr bluntly dismissed RAN as “pie in the sky,” and suggested that the US should instead consider investing in traditional, hardware-based providers such as Nokia and Ericsson.

But Barr, who was at odds with the Pentagon and the Commerce Department over the proposal to use airwaves for the 5G network, changed his tune several months later.

“Although the ‘Open RAN’ approach is not a solution to our immediate problem,” the concept “holds promise and should be explored. We can win the race, but we must act now,” he said in May.

The Trump administration’s crackdown began last year when it put Huawei on a so-called Entity List, largely barring it from doing business in the US. But the disagreements have always been about how to develop an alternative.

In March, the White House outlined its “National Strategy to Secure 5G”, which said the government would “promote responsible global development and deployment of 5G” by working with “like-minded countries” and with “the private sector.”

Industry professionals say the government needs to go further. The success of O-RAN, they argue, requires a level of government funding that so far is lacking.

“Government funding of the private sector is going to really be the ultimate determiner here because they cost billions and billions of dollars for any one carrier,” said Dean Brenner, senior vice-president for spectrum strategy and policy at wireless chip maker Qualcomm.

“That’s one reason we need to push along this new virtualisation because it really dramatically lowers costs, which will bring in new players,” he said. “Without [that] it’s more of a goal than anything else.”

In May, global technology firms including Google, Samsung, Cisco and Vodafone joined forces to urge US lawmakers to fund next-generation tech development using open radio access. The companies which also included AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, Verizon, Rakuten Mobile and Telefonica announced that they had formed the Open RAN Policy Coalition.

They said the change would allow multiple vendors to operate on the system interchangeably and avoid infrastructure in which a single manufacturer must provide everything, thus better protecting data safety.

Earlier this month, Pompeo announced an expanded effort to counter the reach of Chinese-made tech in the US. The “Clean Network” initiative called for American firms such as Apple and Google to remove Chinese apps and bar Chinese carriers and cloud computing providers.

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), which represents members including Apple and Ericsson, issued a paper this week outlining policy recommendations on 5G and cybersecurity.

In an open letter to US political candidates, ITI President Jason Oxman said it was important to “spur investment in next generation wireline broadband, future proof fiber optics, and 5G by streamlining regulatory barriers, increasing spectrum availability, and providing government incentives and funding to reach unserved areas”.

“A lot has gone on,” said Taube.

The important thing, she added, is that “the federal government now needs to ensure that all of these different efforts are well coordinated and that they maintain the same standards.”


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