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US officials may avert 5G standards fragmentation

The US Commerce Department is reportedly finalizing rules that would allow US companies to work with China's Huawei to develop 5G technology standards. The effort could potentially prevent a split in the 5G standard between US and Chinese flavors.

Reuters reported that some US firms have stopped working with China's Huawei on 5G standards after the Commerce Department blacklisted the company last year. However, citing unnamed sources, Reuters reported this week that the Department of Commerce is close to signing off on a new rule that would allow US companies to work with Huawei – though it could require sign-off from other US agencies as well.

According to a new report from research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics, China's Huawei provided more overall contributions to end-to-end 5G standards than any other company in the world.

Indeed, geopolitical issues have already cut into some 5G standards work. For example, Light Reading reported last year that executives from Sprint, AT&T and FirstNet did not attend a 3GPP meeting in Shenzhen, China. The 3GPP is the primary global group setting 5G standards.

While none of the companies would offer any reasons for their absence, some in the industry said their decision to skip the meeting could stem from the deteriorating relationship between the US and China.

Further, new legislation passed by US lawmakers and signed by President Trump this year would in part require American officials to participate in the development of 5G standards.

And just this week, a group of mostly US companies formed the new Open RAN Policy Coalition. The new association is headed by Diane Rinaldo – until recently a top official at the Department of Commerce – and is widely seen as an effort by the US and its allies to leverage open RAN technology against Chinese leadership in 5G. That was also the strategy pressed by White House Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow earlier this year.

Analyst Dean Bubley with Disruptive Analysis speculated this week that these geopolitical developments, taken together, could ultimately result in the fragmentation of 5G standards.

"Clouds are gathering, which may undermine a 'single global standard' vision for 5G and beyond," he wrote on LinkedIn. "US vendors, FCC and its wireless market seem to be diverging, towards open RAN cellular and entrenching Wi-Fi with 6GHz. Its industry is now pressured to avoid working with China, even on standards development. US leads in virtualisation and cloud will help."

As Bubley pointed out, this kind of fragmentation has precedent. In 3G, standards including UMTS and CDMA2000 competed directly with the TD-SCDMA standard in China. 4G LTE was the standard that essentially unified the world.

Bubley said that, absent a course-correction, the endpoint of these trends would be a US-China split in 5.5G or 6G.

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

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