Washington action ‘threatens industry’s move to open RAN’
Nokia has paused its activities with the industry’s leading open RAN organisation because of threats that Washington could impose the same penalties to those on Huawei.
The move is seen as a setback to the trend to open radio access networks (open RANs) in general and the O-RAN Alliance (O-RAN Alliance), an industry organisation, in particular.
But the move might also give lawyers an excuse to look at other open-source projects in which engineers from Chinese companies work with colleagues from western operators and vendors.
Nokia said there was a “compliance-related matter … regarding the O-RAN contributors included in the US entity list”, according to an email seen by Politico, a US-based political news site.
The entity list is a list maintained by the US Department of Commerce (DoC) by which it excludes foreign companies seen as a security threat. No US companies or citizens, or non-US citizens living in the US, are allowed by law to trade with companies on the entity list.
It was Huawei’s addition to the entity list in 2019 that has effectively blocked it from US and international business. US hardware and software companies are banned from supplying it, except by special licence from the DoC, and telecoms companies in the US, Australia, Canada, UK and elsewhere have stopped buying 5G equipment from the Chinese vendor.
It was the widespread ban on Huawei that has helped to promote the industry’s move to open RAN, as mobile operators saw this as a way of moving away from the three main equipment vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia – a number that has now been reduced to two with Huawei’s exclusion.
One of these has been Parallel Wireless, a US company that has been successful in winning business with mobile operators such as Etisalat, Millicom, MTN, Orange, Telefónica, Vodafone and others.
Eugina Jordan, VP of marketing at Parallel Wireless, told Capacity: “The O-RAN Alliance is working to create standards to enable open and intelligent RAN architecture. To address Nokia’s concern, we reasonably expect that the White House will clarify things and issue licences to allow companies to sit on the same key industry groups as Huawei in the O-RAN Alliance, just like it has done in the past for the operators’ association GSMA, standard-setting bodies like IEEE, ETSI and ISO and UN telecoms group ITU, without being in violation of the entity list rules.”
But one of the key issues, Copenhagen-based consultant John Strand of Strand Consult told Capacity today, is that the O-RAN Alliance does not operate in the way that most standards bodies do.
“It is like a trade organisation,” said Strand. “The five founding companies have a veto on decisions.” These are, according to the O-RAN Alliance website, AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange, which set up the organisation in February 2018. Since August 2018 it has been a German company.
“When Huawei was added to the entity list the US government made exceptions,” said Strand. These allowed US companies to continue to work with the vendor in standards organisations.
The DoC has explicitly allowed companies to sit alongside Huawei in organisations such as ETSI, the GSMA and the ITU.
But Nokia’s lawyers appear to have spotted the problem that, if it is not a standards body, the O-RAN Alliance is not covered by those exceptions. “There are two ways of getting round this,” Strand said. “The O-RAN Alliance needs to change the way it works. Or it needs to take out the Chinese companies.”
However, if Strand is right about the five founders’ veto power, China Mobile is able to block any such changes.
Strand said to Capacity: “Nokia is just pointing out a problem.” Other leading companies, including the O-RAN Alliance founders and leading participants such as Ericsson and Qualcomm, have not yet commented.
Politico said that two industry officials who spoke to it on the condition of anonymity said Nokia’s legal team had likely determined that the risk of penalties from the US was too high to continue the work inside the industry alliance.
However, Nokia said to the media: “Nokia’s commitment to ORAN and the O-RAN Alliance of which we were the first major vendor to join, remains strong. At this stage we are simply pausing technical activity with the Alliance as some participants have been added to the US entities list and it is prudent for us to allow the Alliance time to analyse and come to a resolution.”
There are other grey areas that Nokia’s move might highlight. Take, for example, the Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP), an open-source networking project that was formed in February 2017 when two open-source projects merged.
One was an open version of AT&T’s ECOMP and the other was the Open-Orchestrator project, backed by the Linux Foundation – still the home to ONAP – with three lead contributors: China Mobile, Huawei and ZTE.
In other words, AT&T, China Mobile, Huawei and ZTE are working together on an industry-leading open-source project. Whether the DoC categorises that as a standards body, and therefore allows this cohabitation to continue, remains to be seen.