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O-RAN Alliance's China links come under renewed US scrutinyO-RAN Alliance's China links come under renewed US scrutiny

US Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger calls for a report on the national security implications of open RAN after its China connections are exposed.

Iain Morris

October 4, 2021

6 Min Read
O-RAN Alliance's China links come under renewed US scrutiny

Envisage the radio access network (RAN) as a sprawling property, with more rooms than the King of Jordan's cliffside Malibu mansion, and open RAN is basically about making sure everyone has keys to all its gates and doors. A new face can be moved into a part of the house without disturbing the other residents.

In the absence of common sets of keys, an operator building a multivendor network has had to ask supplier A to unlock its door to supplier B and vice versa. This was the approach to 4G taken by Japan's Rakuten, the operator most typically associated with open RAN. But it is hardly the removal of barriers that open RAN promised – just a circuitous way around them that has always existed.

That is why operators set up the O-RAN Alliance as locksmith and key maker back in 2018. It is developing the interfaces that should allow one supplier's radios to cohabit the same RAN as another's computing products – and ideally without any drawn-out trials to prove they are compatible.

Figure 1: US Democrat Abigail Spanberger is concerned by China's involvement in open RAN. US Democrat Abigail Spanberger is concerned by China's involvement in open RAN.

Yet the O-RAN Alliance suddenly finds itself caught up in geopolitics. Several of its Chinese members are on one US naughty list or another. Scared that sharing intellectual property with those companies might be illegal, Nokia, one of the group's biggest contributors, paused all technical work a few weeks ago. It was lured back after the O-RAN Alliance promised to be more transparent to the outside world. But its China connections, exposed like a raw nerve by Nokia's interregnum, are being probed.

Prober-in-chief is Abigail Spanberger, the US representative for Virginia's 7th congressional district and a member of the Democratic Party. She is pushing for a detailed report on the national security implications of open RAN, and she wants that report to consider the involvement of Chinese companies in the O-RAN Alliance (her staff did not respond to a Light Reading email that asked questions). The group must have hoped its transparency promises were all the self-medication it needed. But its discomfort looks set to grow.

China syndrome

The China connections are numerous and deep. The O-RAN Alliance was formed when the xRAN Forum, a group of mainly US and European companies and organizations, merged with a Chinese association called the C-RAN Alliance, whose chief powerbroker was state-owned Chinese telco China Mobile.

Research subsequently carried out by Strand Consult, a Danish advisory firm, showed that 44 Chinese companies were O-RAN Alliance members or contributors. They include China Telecom and China Unicom, two other telcos under government control, and ZTE, an equipment vendor with state links that featured on the US trade blacklist as recently as 2018 and is still banned from building networks on US soil.

American and European companies already mingle with the Chinese in technical groups like ETSI and the 3GPP, even pooling their expertise with Huawei, a Chinese vendor at the top of the US hit list. What may worry Spanberger is that ETSI and the 3GPP are both recognizable as official standards bodies under World Trade Organization (WTO) criteria. The O-RAN Alliance, even after its recent changes, is probably not.

One of the O-RAN Alliance's main problems, according to a European Commission (EC) report published in August, is that it does not make essential information "easily accessible to all interested parties." Another is that its procedures are "not open in a non-discriminatory manner during all stages of the standard-setting process."

Even if it has partly addressed these points, its founder members still have a veto that the EC attacked in its August report as a "privilege" that allowed those five companies "to block proposals." The privileged five include AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo, Orange and China Mobile, whose presence in that inner circle seems bound to rile any inquisitive US politicians. An unconfirmed rumor is that China Mobile has fed O-RAN Alliance information to Huawei, its biggest supplier.

Quad play

The O-RAN Alliance, curiously, received no mention in the recent White House statement on the Quad Leaders' Summit, a meeting of leaders from Australia, India, Japan and the US. This foursome has maintained something called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad, for short) since 2007 in response to growing evidence of China's military and economic power. All sorts of joint initiatives were announced at the summit on September 24, including support for "5G deployment and diversification" through open RAN.

But it was the Open RAN Policy Coalition the White House name-checked in its statement. This group, entirely separate from the O-RAN Alliance, is to be the main coordinator on a project that will "support the critical role of Quad governments in fostering and promoting a diverse, resilient, and secure telecommunications ecosystem," said authorities.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

After the recent publicity, it must have looked like a much safer bet. As its name implies, the Open RAN Policy Coalition is a far more political group that promotes open RAN as a secure alternative to Chinese vendors such as Huawei and ZTE. Its 60 members include none from China. Unfortunately, it is a lobbyist, not a technical, association. "It doesn't do any standards or specifications work," says John Strand, the CEO of Strand Consult.

The O-RAN Alliance currently has more participants from China than it does from any other country bar the US. Highlighting it in a statement about the Quad, a group established to curb China's influence, would have been absurd. The question is whether it would have happened before the recent Nokia affair.

Whatever the White House might think, the Open RAN Policy Coalition cannot simply be substituted for the O-RAN Alliance and expected to do its job. An open RAN specifications alternative does not exist. If the O-RAN Alliance becomes politically unacceptable, the only option is to copy Rakuten and jimmy the locks, and that is hardly the long-term formula the industry wants.

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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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