Open RAN was supposed to be about cost savings and innovation, but it is increasingly – and misguidedly – about shutting out the Chinese.

Iain Morris, International Editor

May 6, 2020

6 Min Read
The political hijacking of open RAN

Scan the membership list of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, the newest club in the trendy open RAN community, and one feature leaps out. US firms are extremely well represented, and there are also members from Japan, South Korea, Spain and the UK. But not a single Chinese company is named.

So what? Right? Dozens of other nationalities aren't represented, either. There are no German or Indian members, and none at all from Africa. But China's omission seems more deliberate. Africa, India and most European countries are not exactly powerhouses in mobile networks. China, though, is home to the world's largest service provider (China Mobile), its biggest manufacturer of network equipment (Huawei), the BAT trio (the web giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, not the winged mammals) and dozens of smaller components companies. A technology club without China is like an international soccer tournament without Brazil.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition failed to answer an email asking if it was open to Chinese companies. But its set-up looks like a further politicization of open RAN. When it first appeared, the technology, which promises to make networks more software-based and interoperable, was supposed to be all about efficiency and innovation. And some of its pioneers would still prefer to highlight these attractions. But their voices are being lost in the political din. Increasingly, open RAN is not about cost savings, competition or even openness. It's about shutting out the Chinese.

It was certainly not predestined to arrive at this point. Just two years ago, open RAN became a discussion topic at Mobile World Congress when two existing groups merged to form the O-RAN Alliance, the body now developing open RAN specifications. One, the xRAN Forum, included mainly US and other western firms. But the other, the C-RAN Alliance, was a Chinese initiative led by China Mobile. Today, O-RAN Alliance members include all three of China's mobile operators plus numerous Chinese vendors. ZTE is the best known, but others are GrenTech, Inspur, Mikwave, Tongyu, Spideradio, Sunwave and Ruijie.

Somewhere along the way, open RAN got sucked into the war against Huawei. Fixated on the Chinese equipment giant, and its market-leading 5G position, US authorities have grabbed hold of open RAN as the nearest available weapon for the fight. Their logic is based on three assumptions, only one of which makes any sense.

That would be the global demand by service providers for more open, cloud-based networks. Whether trying to build a network from scratch or upgrading one that already exists, operators would rather not pay lifetime homage to the triumvirate of equipment giants that is Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia. For several years, they have called for change.

Creating clones to spur competition is probably not feasible or desired. "Our industry as such is that there are scale economies. It takes a lot of R&D and investment," said Fredrik Jejdling, the head of Ericsson's networks business, during a conversation in February. Backing an ecosystem of smaller companies, including software start-ups with lower capital expenses, looks more sensible – especially if operators are determined to build "multivendor" networks and become less dependent on single-supplier deals.

Getting it all wrong
The first misguided assumption is that open RAN is somehow more anti-Chinese than it is anti-establishment. Arguably, it is a much graver threat to Ericsson and Nokia than it is to Huawei. Ericsson owes nearly all its revenues to mobile equipment sales and would suffer badly if open RAN managed to undercut this market. And Nokia, while active in non-mobile equipment sectors, is barely profitable after missteps in 5G and merger-related difficulties. While it has looked more amenable to open RAN than either Ericsson or Huawei, a seismic technology shift is hardly what it needs right now. If open RAN did take off, it would hurt the two vendors building nearly all the 5G networks in the US market.

What's more, the US might be able to set up an exclusive club, closed to the Chinese, but it cannot stop China from playing the sport. Already, Chinese companies are involved in the main specifications group developing open RAN interfaces, as shown by the membership page of the O-RAN Alliance. According to sources at ZTE, the Chinese vendor – essentially, a smaller version of Huawei – has been an active participant in that group. This all means the same underlying interfaces may be used in China's future open RAN networks, even if different companies build them. A fracturing of the O-RAN Alliance would stop this, but it could also harm the immature technology.

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The other misguided assumption is that open RAN is ready for prime time. Proponents, including big service providers, insist that software improvements are helping to compensate for the performance drawbacks of general-purpose processors. But analysts remain unconvinced. "If you are trying to do baseband on X86, it will never scale," says Earl Lum of EJL Wireless Research. "O-RAN is a piddly thing that will bump along, but right now it is an enterprise solution."

These are harsh criticisms, and other experts think open RAN has a brighter future. Yet in developed markets no service provider bar Japan's Rakuten – and possibly Dish, the US operator that seems to view Rakuten as a model – has been willing to use open RAN for a major rollout. Government funding and support might help. Some US politicians, interestingly, have proposed setting up a $1 billion open RAN fund. But as a weapon against Huawei, with its $123 billion in annual sales, open RAN still looks like a paper knife deployed against a woolly mammoth.

The optimistic scenario is that open RAN will catch up and eventually become a mainstream alternative. But the end product of further political hijacking would be the balkanization of the open RAN community. That might already be happening as US firms like Mavenir and Parallel Wireless, alert to their government's protectionist instincts, work on shifting radio manufacture from Asia to the US.

Before the Huawei debacle, globalization was not widely viewed as a negative for the telecom industry. And even if the effect is limited, it is hard now to see how balkanization would not hinder open RAN. By the time it overcomes its various technical and geopolitical barriers, today's 5G technologies may be widely deployed in telco networks, tying operators to long-term relationships with the same equipment triumvirate. Political interference could turn out to be the worst thing that happened to open RAN.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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