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Here's why Mike Pompeo wants a watered-down open RAN

The US State Department is working to generate support for a new concept called "Integrated and Open Networks" (ION) that is basically a diluted version of open RAN. The agency's goal is to attract big vendors like Nokia and Ericsson to the effort so that the US can provide an official, approved alternative to China's Huawei on the international stage.

However, there doesn't appear to be much momentum behind ION, based on my investigation into the topic.

Nonetheless, the issue yet again highlights US officials' work to demonize Huawei as an international threat, as well as the Trump administration's disjointed efforts to come up with some kind of approach to the issue.

A quiet roundtable
The State Department, headed by Trump's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, floated the idea of "Integrated and Open Networks" during a roundtable featuring the CTOs of Dell, Ericsson, Google, Microsoft, Nokia and Samsung in May. Mung Chiang, director of the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, described 5G ION as "a new, practical kind of 'open' that can start today."

"With a broad, inclusive tent of what 'open' means, a nuanced appreciation of network deployment reality, and a more solid view on architectural choices, ION becomes one of the areas where the United States and partner countries can lead in 5G innovation," he said in a short statement on the department's website.

However, details of the proposal and the CTO roundtable are unclear. State Department officials said there is not a recording of the roundtable and declined to comment further on the topic. Officials from Dell, Google, Microsoft and Nokia did not respond to questions about the event.

An Ericsson representative confirmed that CTO Erik Ekudden attended. "We regularly participate in different government forums in the US and in other countries where matters of interest for our industry are being discussed," Ericson's Jimmy Duvall told Light Reading, but declined to discuss the issue further.

Similarly, a Samsung representative said only that "we don't have any comment" on the topic, and referred questions to the State Department and the new Open RAN Policy Coalition. A representative of the coalition – which counts Samsung and Nokia as members but not Ericsson – referred questions back to the companies that attended the event.

An unlikely compromise
Sources familiar with the State Department's ION proposal described the effort as a "truce" between the traditional, integrated approach to wireless equipment long championed by the likes of Ericsson and Nokia, and cloud providers like Microsoft and Google that generally support a separation of hardware and software. The department's goal, the sources explained, is to create a federation among the two groups for 5G that Pompeo could then shop to US allies like the UK and Canada as a progressive alternative to China's Huawei. US officials have become increasingly vocal in their international opposition to Huawei, which has gained a leading global position in the market for wireless equipment with inexpensive and capable equipment offerings.

But the fact that Samsung, Nokia and others aren't willing to talk about ION certainly doesn't bode well for the project. Indeed, Cisco's Bob Everson said the company is not participating in ION. Everson, Cisco's head of 5G architecture, explained that he has reservations about the "integrated" portion of the proposal because Cisco has long been a staunch supporter of a separation between software and hardware.

But the State Department's ION proposal did gain one important supporter: the nation's top law enforcement officer. "Although the 'open RAN' approach is not a solution to our immediate problem, the concept of Integrated and Open Networks (ION), which was the topic of [the State Department's CTO] roundtable, holds promise and should be explored," said US Attorney General William Barr in a statement issued the day after Pompeo's ION roundtable.

Discord in the inner circle
Barr, another Trump appointee, has taken a firm stance against Huawei and China, but has argued that open RAN technology is not ready for prime time and cannot be used as a block against Huawei. He has previously lambasted open RAN as a "pie in the sky" concept.

Barr's comments on open RAN essentially represented a direct attack on a competing 5G proposal by White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, another Trump appointee. Kudlow earlier this year proposed to use open RAN technology developed by US companies as a block against Huawei, and he boasted of support from AT&T, Microsoft and Dell for the effort.

"Barr's continuing interest and somewhat dissenting viewpoints on the 5G topic suggest that the issues are not resolved internally within the [Trump] administration," noted the Wall Street analysts at New Street Research in a recent note to investors following Pompeo's ION roundtable.

Ultimately, the competing 5G proposals among Trump's inner circle – whether it's Kudlow's open RAN or Pompeo's ION – highlight the fact that the US still does not have a cohesive or comprehensive strategy when it comes to 5G or Huawei on the global stage. And given President Trump's completely disastrous performance on racial unrest, COVID-19, climate change and other political minefields – many of his own making – there's no reason to expect a resolution of this issue any time soon.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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