Am­bi­tious plan to put Huawei equip­ment on the scrap-heap

UK throw­ing weight be­hind open-source soft­ware to wean its net­works off the Chi­nese gi­ant’s kit, finds James Tit­comb in San Fran­cisco

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce -

As Oliver Dow­den fi­nally con­firmed that Bri­tain’s mo­bile providers would be forced to rip Huawei out of their 5G net­works, the Cul­ture Sec­re­tary dan­gled a car­rot along with his stick. On Tues­day, Dow­den hinted that the Trea­sury would fund in­vest­ment in an al­ter­na­tive to Huawei, whose hard­ware has been deemed too risky af­ter US sanc­tions against the Chi­nese group.

This al­ter­na­tive is not a full-blown com­peti­tor. There is no plan for a homegrown Huawei. In­stead, it is an idea: a soft­ware ini­tia­tive called OpenRAN that could not only by­pass Huawei, but up­end how mo­bile phone net­works are built, mak­ing them cheaper, faster and more trans­par­ent.

“In or­der to fa­cil­i­tate the OpenRAN so­lu­tion, it will re­quire in­vest­ment from the Gov­ern­ment”, Dow­den said, when asked by Con­ser­va­tive MP Flick Drum­mond how the Gov­ern­ment would sup­port an in­dus­try that now faces a £2bn bill for re­mov­ing Huawei from 5G net­works. He added that this would come at “a fu­ture fis­cal event”.

“The fu­ture … is an OpenRAN net­work,” Dow­den also said.

The eas­i­est way to ex­plain OpenRAN is per­haps by ex­plain­ing what it is not. Decades of in­dus­try con­sol­i­da­tion mean that only a hand­ful of com­pa­nies are ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing the equip­ment needed to build a ra­dio ac­cess net­work, the in­fra­struc­ture such as base sta­tions and an­ten­nas, and the soft­ware that con­trols them, that ex­ists be­tween a mo­bile phone and a net­work’s fixed core. Huawei, Eric­s­son and Nokia con­trol three quar­ters of this mar­ket for 5G. Crit­ics say that means higher prices, less choice and slower in­no­va­tion. It is part of the rea­son wean­ing Bri­tain off Huawei is so dif­fi­cult.

OpenRAN, by con­trast, prom­ises to break this mar­ket open. The ini­tia­tive in­volves de­vel­op­ing open-source net­work soft­ware that can be used by any­one and work across dif­fer­ent equip­ment. This would al­low new en­trants into the hard­ware mar­ket, and al­low the tele­coms com­pa­nies build­ing mo­bile net­works to mix and match equip­ment.

Pro­po­nents see a parallel with the open-source soft­ware rev­o­lu­tion that has changed com­puter servers and data­bases, giv­ing the com­pa­nies that use them much more con­trol and

‘It is ab­so­lutely go­ing to hap­pen. It is on the cusp of be­ing ready, but it is not quite com­pletely there’

dis­rupt­ing the grip of tech com­pa­nies such as IBM and Mi­crosoft.

The idea has some big back­ers. BT, Voda­fone and Tele­fon­ica, which run Bri­tain’s three big­gest mo­bile net­works, as well as Face­book, In­tel and a string of over­seas tele­coms com­pa­nies, are mem­bers of the Tele­com In­fra Pro­ject, a key in­dus­try body back­ing the tech.

Voda­fone started test­ing OpenRAN in the UK last year, and O2 has said it is con­duct­ing tri­als in Lon­don this year. For cash-strapped tel­cos now deal­ing with the prospect of an ex­pen­sive over­haul, any op­por­tu­nity to save money will be wel­comed.

There is one big prob­lem. The tech­nol­ogy is not ready yet for 5G net­works, and it is un­clear when it will be. Voda­fone’s OpenRAN test is for the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion 4G net­works, and the Tele­com In­fra Pro­ject does not ex­pect to have a stan­dard un­til next year at the ear­li­est. To­day, only one com­pany – Ja­pan’s Rakuten – is build­ing a 5G net­work built on OpenRAN. With Ap­ple set to in­tro­duce its first 5G iPhone later this year, net­works might not be able to wait.

Ge­off Blaber, an an­a­lyst at CCS In­sight, says: “It’s cer­tainly no sil­ver bul­let to the chal­lenges around Huawei. We’re not at the point where OpenRAN can come in and re­place pro­pri­etary hard­ware, it’s sim­ply not ma­ture enough.”

Wil­liam Barr, the US at­tor­ney gen­eral, one of Amer­ica’s most se­nior Huawei hawks, and a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive at US tele­coms group Ver­i­zon, has been even less op­ti­mistic about its prospects. “The prob­lem is that this is just pie in the sky,” Barr said of OpenRAN at a speech in Fe­bru­ary.

“This ap­proach is com­pletely untested, and would take many years to get off the ground, and would not be ready for prime time for a decade, if ever.” He sug­gested the US should in­stead in­vest in Eric­s­son or Nokia to counter Huawei.

Michael Davies, who leads the New

‘You can’t build a 5G ra­dio with­out in­fring­ing on a whole bunch of Nokia and Eric­s­son patents’

Tech­nol­ogy Ven­tures pro­gramme at Lon­don Busi­ness School and is an ad­viser to tele­coms com­pa­nies, says that even if net­works wanted to em­brace OpenRAN, the hard­ware to sup­port it, com­plete with cut­ting edge mi­crochips and sup­port for mul­ti­ple ra­dio fre­quen­cies, is hard to de­velop.

A hand­ful of start-ups are try­ing, but op­er­a­tors must in­vest in equip­ment that will sit in their net­works for years, mak­ing them nat­u­rally con­ser­va­tive, and un­likely to bet on a risky up­start. Equip­ment sellers are also no­to­ri­ous for pro­tect­ing their in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, and so build­ing OpenRAN tech­nol­ogy, which threat­ens the

Huawei-Eric­s­son-Nokia oli­gop­oly, could well be met with patent law­suits.

“You can’t build a 5G ra­dio with­out in­fring­ing on a whole bunch of Nokia and Eric­s­son patents, so you are go­ing to have to pay them some­thing,” says Davies.

In­dus­try pro­jec­tions are that OpenRAN might be com­mer­cially vi­able in the mid­dle of the decade, to­wards the end of the time­line for rip­ping Huawei out of the UK’s 5G net­works. In the mean­time, op­er­a­tors are likely to turn to Nokia and Eric­s­son.

But in the long run, the tech­nol­ogy means build­ing net­works will be­come cheaper and more flex­i­ble. Ear­lier this year, Nokia took a step to con­ced­ing this, com­mit­ting to mak­ing its equip­ment com­pat­i­ble with open soft­ware.

“It is ab­so­lutely go­ing to hap­pen,” says Davies. “It is on the cusp of be­ing ready, but it is not quite com­pletely there.”

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