August 30, 2022
One of the first challenges for the O-RAN Alliance's next chairman will be what to do – if anything – about some of the organization's less savory members. As revealed earlier this week, Andre Fuetsch quits that role today after resigning from his job as AT&T's chief technology officer in July. He will leave behind a group that controversially counts dozens of Chinese companies as members – not to mention two high-profile Russian organizations.
Of the two, Skoltech is the more worrisome. Based in Moscow, with a focus on science and technology, the private university establishment was this month added to the growing list of Chinese and Russian organizations currently subject to US sanctions. Its crime, according to a lengthy update by the US Department of State, is to have had a "close relationship" with Russia's military for nearly a decade. Uralvagonzavod, a tank manufacturer, and Mashinostrovenia, a missile maker, are just two of the "sanctioned Russian weapon development entities" apparently involved with Skoltech (which did not respond when approached by Light Reading for this story).
None of those details looks good while Russian forces continue to pummel Ukraine. Since Vladimir Putin launched his "deNazification" campaign in February, US and European sanctions against his fiefdom have been sweeping. Hundreds of organizations have severed ties to Russia, with Nordic kit makers Ericsson and Nokia among them. Outside telecom, Daniil Medvedev, the world's top-ranked male tennis player, was not even allowed to play Wimbledon this year (although he is defending his US Open title in New York this week).
Figure 1: Andrey Belousov (right), Russia's first deputy prime minister, on an official visit to Skoltech.
All that makes Skoltech's participation in the O-RAN Alliance extremely awkward for the Germany-headquartered specifications group. For a start, it is bound to unnerve some of the other members already jittery about infringing US sanctions. Signs of that were seen almost a year ago when Nokia, one of the O-RAN Alliance's biggest contributors, paused all technical activity in the group out of concern that several Chinese members were in the US bad books.
It eventually resumed work after the O-RAN Alliance approved several changes to make itself more transparent. Nokia, presumably, would have received assurances from US authorities that it was not at risk of penalties. Similar technical groups, like the 3GPP, seem to have won exemption from the trade rules because they are recognized as official standards bodies by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Otherwise, Nokia and other Western firms would not be able to participate in 5G standards development alongside Huawei, a Chinese competitor that features on the notorious US Entity List.
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Yet for all its changes, the O-RAN Alliance still does not meet the various WTO criteria for what constitutes a standards organization (among other things, its five founder members – AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange – appear to retain veto rights). Meanwhile, with Russia invading Ukraine and China threatening Taiwan, the world looks even more divided than it did one year ago.
When it talks about open RAN, the White House has stopped mentioning the O-RAN Alliance, instead namedropping another mainly US group called the Open RAN Policy Coalition, says John Strand, the CEO of Danish advisory firm Strand Consult. "That is not even a place where they discuss specifications – it is just a lobby group to promote the technology," Strand told Light Reading. "There is no standardization. But they don't have the Chinese members."
Another big concern may be that Russian companies use O-RAN Alliance expertise to advance Russian interests. Open RAN technology could buoy local specialists – the interfaces are designed to support interoperability between different vendors, meaning Russian software could theoretically work with Chinese radios. The alternative, after Ericsson and Nokia withdraw from Russia, would be almost complete dependency on Chinese rivals Huawei and ZTE.
Yadro, the other Russian member of the O-RAN Alliance, is a server company reportedly designing its own chips based on RISC-V, an architectural alternative to Intel's x86 and UK-based Arm. For less hawkish opponents of Russia, a local supply chain featuring the likes of Yadro would help to support communications services for ordinary Russians and is preferable to even closer relations between China and Russia. But others want sanctions to be as punitive as possible, and Yadro's access to manufacturing facilities owned by TSMC, Samsung or Intel is in doubt.
The involvement of Russians in the main open RAN specifications group could also heighten concern about the security of the technology. Most open RAN deployments are likely to be virtualized, meaning the software can sit on general-purpose equipment. In July, Karsten Nohl, a German security expert, told a hacker event in the Netherlands that poor configuration of these virtualized telecom networks was giving rise to new threats.
With the telecom industry's adoption of open-source code, including platforms like Docker and Kubernetes, hundreds of people across various companies might be writing software used in a mobile network, said Nohl. "You post it on the Internet and people don't start looking for bugs in it. The hacker will use that information."
Strand is riled by the depiction of open RAN in some US circles as a secure alternative to Chinese vendors. "How can it be an alternative when the Chinese are so heavily involved in all the work that is going on here? Now you have Russia, which has put itself on the same list as China." he said. "The O-RAN Alliance looks like a sanctuary for crooks."
Despite its claims of transparency, the O-RAN Alliance did not respond when asked if it would continue to let Skoltech and Yadro participate. Cancelling their membership would set a worrying precedent and imply the O-RAN Alliance lacks the status of the 3GPP. But the survivability of any technology group that includes Chinese, Russian and US members cannot be taken for granted.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading
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