German plan for tackling Huawei in 5G dubbed ‘nonsense’ – Light Reading

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Repeatedly admonished by European Union (EU) authorities for buying goods from Huawei, Germany continues to be the biggest and most disobedient child in the EU family of nations. The Chinese company is judged a “high-risk vendor” by the EU, but Germany’s landmass is now liberally seasoned with Huawei’s 5G antennas. Stripping it out would cost about €2.5 billion (US$2.7 billion), according to Barclays. Operators fiercely resist.

Worse, from a government perspective, would be the possible impact on the German economy of Chinese retaliation if Huawei were banned. When the Swedes did that a few years ago, Ericsson subsequently saw its market share in China plummet as jobs went to local vendors instead. Germany has much more to lose. China ranked as its second-biggest trading partner for the first three months of 2024, buying German goods worth €24 billion ($26 billion), according to government data. Cars and machine tools are popular exports.

It all explains a proposed German workaround that would allow telcos to retain most of Huawei’s radio access network (RAN) goods provided they remove its management software. Germany has justified its stance so far by insisting the RAN is not classified as a “critical component” in official legalese. Only the 5G core, the control center of the network, falls into this category, and operators have already abandoned Huawei’s 5G core network applications, shifting to a mix of European and US vendors instead.

While a full ban is currently on the table, some German officials evidently hope that a cleansing of the RAN management software – what industry parlance refers to as the element management system (EMS) – would be an acceptable compromise. In this scenario, telcos would still be allowed to use Huawei’s 5G basestation hardware and software. But another company would provide the EMS or its equivalent.

Three industry figures who shared views with Light Reading on condition of anonymity are unconvinced by the practicalities. One described the proposal as “total nonsense” and said it would not address the the risk of malicious source code being included in Huawei’s basestation software (no evidence of which has ever been found).

Another one of those people said it remains impossible in a traditional 5G network – of the kind deployed in Germany – to combine one vendor’s EMS with another’s RAN products. Management and RAN features are tightly coupled in every software release, he said.

Light Reading’s third source is less immediately hostile to the idea, saying it could theoretically work. But it has never been done before and would demand close collaboration between the different EMS and RAN vendors. Usually proprietary, the so-called “northbound” and “southbound” interfaces between these separate parts of the network would have to be opened so that information could flow between them.

Because no industry standards are available for this in the world of the traditional RAN, Huawei and the EMS provider would need to be especially proactive. Standards have been defined by a group called the OSS (operational support systems) interoperability initiative (OSSii) for linking a third-party EMS to other management or automation platforms that might be used in a multivendor set-up. But in this environment, the EMS vendor would have to expose Huawei’s RAN information to those other platforms via the OSSii northbound interface.

Deutsche Telekom rolls up its sleeves

Given these difficulties, and the unlikelihood of such close collaboration between Huawei and a western rival, why is this proposal taken seriously at all? Possibly because of lobbying by Deutsche Telekom, the partly state-owned incumbent that is Huawei’s biggest German customer. According to a fourth source with knowledge of the matter, it has been working to develop its own EMS or management software to handle Huawei’s RAN.

The project is said to have begun as part of Deutsche Telekom’s work on open RAN before being rescoped. Backed by international telcos including Deutsche Telekom, open RAN is an effort to boost interoperability so that different RAN vendors can more easily be glued together. Much of the focus has been on opening the important fronthaul interface, allowing radios from one supplier to be combined with RAN software from another. But the O-RAN Alliance, the group developing specifications, is also working on the interfaces between the management software platform and the RAN.

Unfortunately, work in this service and management orchestration (SMO) area, as open RAN calls it, has not moved as fast. Just a few months ago, Vodafone and NTT Docomo said in a white paper that without further progress “vendor proprietary extensions will be required to interconnect vendor functions with SMO, excluding SMO from the positive evolution.”

Regardless, Huawei is not a participant in the O-RAN Alliance, remains largely at odds with the open RAN concept and does not have open RAN products installed in Germany. It would undoubtedly be happier about opening northbound and southbound interfaces to customer-built management software than to another vendor’s EMS. But the possibility it has been heavily involved in the Deutsche Telekom initiative will not help to win over the region’s anxious security watchdogs.

Deutsche Telekom did not respond to a request for comment on all this. Its main public statement on RAN management as it relates to concerns about Huawei came almost a year ago. In an article published on its website, it argued that “systems for network management … are completely inaccessible from the outside” and roped off from all but a few employees with special clearance. “There is no direct access for manufacturers,” it said.

Judging by the expert feedback provided to Light Reading, this is not a workable solution to Germany’s Huawei problem. A full ban is also up for consideration, forcing operators to rip out Huawei’s basestations and replace them with more acceptable vendors. But the latest press reports suggest telcos would have until 2029 to do it. For opponents of China, that will seem far too long.

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