The Trump administration is moving forward with a plan that will apparently involve fostering software developed for 5G by US-based companies. The effort -- which includes participation from the likes of AT&T, Microsoft and Dell -- is intended to create US alternatives to China's Huawei.
The details of the plan are decidedly vague. But Trump's new effort will sit alongside a number of other major developments in the US wireless industry that are also geared toward limiting the role of Huawei and other Chinese suppliers. And, when taken together, all of the developments in this area paint a clear path toward a potential bifurcation in the global wireless industry between China-sponsored technology and US-sponsored technology.
Details of the Trump administration's newest plan were reported by The Wall Street Journal, citing comments from White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow. Kudlow has previously represented Trump on various economic issues, including 5G. However, there is so far no corresponding official announcement from the White House on the topic.
"The plan would build on efforts by some US telecom and technology companies to agree on common engineering standards that would allow 5G software developers to run code atop machines that come from nearly any hardware manufacturer. That would reduce, if not eliminate, reliance on Huawei equipment," the publication reported in what is likely a nod toward the global wireless industry's push toward open radio access network (RAN) technology.
"The big-picture concept is to have all of the US 5G architecture and infrastructure done by American firms, principally," Kudlow told the WSJ. "That also could include Nokia and Ericsson because they have big US presences."
The effort appears to line up very closely with a new program at the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) called "Open Programmable Secure 5G" (OPS-5G). As noted by Data Centre Dynamics, the program promises to "create open source software and systems enabling secure 5G and subsequent mobile networks such as 6G. The signature security advantage of open source software is increased code visibility, meaning that code can be examined, analyzed and audited, either manually or with automated tools. In addition, the portability of open source serves, as a desired side-effect, to decouple the hardware and software ecosystems. This significantly raises the difficulty of a supply-chain attack and eases the introduction of innovative hardware into the market."
Officials from DARPA did not immediately respond to questions on the new program.
A determined US push against Huawei
While this latest development in the 5G arena appears to be in its very early stages, it is clearly part of a bigger and more serious trend among US companies, regulators and lawmakers to both handicap China's Huawei and encourage domestic alternatives.
In just the past few months, a bipartisan group of prominent US politicians proposed investing more than $1 billion in new open radio access network technologies (O-RAN) that could spur on US software companies. And a different group of US legislators proposed a separate $1 billion to tear out Huawei equipment from existing US networks and replace it with equipment from other, unnamed suppliers.
While big carriers like Verizon and AT&T have largely eschewed Huawei equipment in their networks, a number of small wireless network operators in the US have admitted to using Huawei's gear.
And of course there's the ongoing Commerce Department ban on US companies selling components and technology to Huawei, a situation that has already cut millions of dollars of revenues from affected US companies. However, the US Defense Department recently came out against the ban, arguing that US companies might reduce their research and development spending if they lose Huawei as a customer.
Globally, Trump officials also have been working to get US allies to ban Huawei, with mixed results. For example, the UK recently said it will restrict Huawei equipment in the country, but that it won't ban it outright.
But perhaps the most insightful proceeding on Huawei and the Chinese threat to 5G in the US is playing out at the FCC, the US government agency charged with oversight of telecom networks. That agency is considering a proposal that would bar the purchase of Huawei equipment among US companies that receive government subsidies for network buildouts in rural areas. The FCC is also evaluating its own rip-and-replace program of existing Huawei equipment in US networks.
However, unlike some of the other Trump administration efforts against Huawei, the FCC's proceeding is being held in the daylight, with publicly available comments from all the companies involved in the issue.
Huawei, ZTE, Nokia and others weigh in
"ZTE respects that the Commission must take whatever steps it believes are appropriate to protect US national security and the security of US telecommunications," ZTE wrote to the FCC in laying its argument about why it should not be banned. "If, upon consideration of this information, the Commission is of the view that it needs more information from ZTE, we would welcome the opportunity to present it to the Commission on a going forward basis."
In its own filing on the topic, Huawei was far more blunt. "The Commission lacks the statutory authority to require the removal and replacement of covered [Huawei] equipment," the company wrote in a 122-page filing with the FCC arguing its case. "The Commission also lacks the authority to extend the prohibition on use of covered equipment to all carriers. Taking either of these steps would therefore be unlawful."
Nonetheless, a number of other companies are using the FCC's proceeding against Huawei and ZTE for their own ends.
For example, Nokia told the FCC that it is "very experienced at live RAN swaps without service disruption" -- a clear hint that it would be oh-so-willing to replace Huawei's equipment with its own.
Nokia also appeared to urge the Commission to finance not only the removal of 4G equipment from Huawei but also to replace it with better, more capable 5G equipment. "The Commission should support purchase of equipment that is rapidly upgradable to support 5G," Nokia wrote. "Deployment of 5G to rural America already poses unique challenges, and a strict 'like for like' requirement [on Huawei replacements] risks making the 5G proposition even more expensive and elusive in rural areas."
Nokia isn't the only company tacitly arguing that the FCC help finance a rural upgrade to 5G as part of a program to replace Huawei equipment in rural US wireless networks. "Union Wireless urged the Commission to take into account that 5G technology is rapidly advancing and there may soon be American equipment suppliers or other technical solutions that expand the range of options available to small rural carriers," the rural wireless network operator wrote to the FCC.
Of course, what's ironic here is that US officials have widely criticized the communist Chinese government for financing the construction of 5G networks there, while US companies now are openly urging the US government to do the same domestically.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that all this anti-Huawei rhetoric in the US doesn't appear to have had much of an effect so far on the Chinese vendor. Huawei -- the world's largest supplier of wireless networking equipment -- generates less than 1% of revenue from the US market, according to research and consulting firm GlobalData.