O-RAN is overhyped as avoiding Chinese 5G influence | The Strategist – The Strategist

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In recent years, countries have faced a stark choice between Chinese and Western suppliers to develop their 5G cellular network infrastructure. While Chinese suppliers such as Huawei and ZTE are not trusted because of their ties and legal obligations to China’s party-state, Western suppliers have struggled to compete on cost.

The emergence of Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) technology has promised to offer a third way by enabling RAN—the interface between users’ devices and the core infrastructure of a cellular network—to be stitched together with components and software from different suppliers.

However, the idea that O-RAN is a viable alternative to Chinese suppliers seems hollow. It’s still not cost-effective compared with traditional RAN offerings by Huawei and ZTE, and, more importantly, Chinese companies are also involved in setting O-RAN standards.

In short, O-RAN is not what it’s being made out to be.

So why is the US continuing to invest in and promote its adoption? Earlier this year, the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration awarded US$42 million towards a new research and development centre for O-RAN technology in Dallas, Texas. The funding is part of a 10-year, US$1.5 billion effort launched in 2022 dubbed the ‘Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund’.

Furthermore, the Quad has sought to promote the adoption of O-RAN, even though its Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group in a report published last year described the standardisation effort on O-RAN security specifications led by the O-RAN Alliance as ‘incomplete’.

The O-RAN Alliance, an industry body formed in 2018 that’s working to set standards for the technology, has also been criticised due to Chinese players being heavily involved in its governance and China Mobile being a veto-wielding founding member. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see why some have argued that O-RAN does not solve the ‘China challenge’ for 5G.

A clear example of how Chinese companies occupy a privileged position within the O-RAN Alliance was seen when Russian members of the organisation subject to US sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 were delisted from the organisation, while Chinese members facing sanctions have yet to face similar treatment.

All of this raises significant questions for the purported objectives of the US’s support for O-RAN adoption. At this point, it seems unlikely that O-RAN will break the existing industry structure for cellular network technology and create more viable challengers to established big players. If anything, the idea that O-RAN is an alternative to Chinese suppliers will be further undermined as those suppliers begin to offer equipment and software based on O-RAN standards.

Indeed, the US push for a decoupling from Chinese 5G suppliers seems to have run out of steam altogether. US pressure initially prompted the European Union to launch a toolbox of mitigation measures for cybersecurity threats to 5G cellular networks in 2020. However, EU countries have been slow to implement the toolbox, and only 10 out of the 27 member states have imposed restrictions on Chinese suppliers so far.

In Southeast Asia, where countries baulked at being asked to choose a side, development goals have often taken precedence for 5G rollouts despite awareness of the risks associated with Chinese suppliers. Regional adoption of O-RAN has also been slow, and Southeast Asia’s first and only open testing and integration centre was launched in Singapore only last year.

Given the wide range of capabilities and concerns, the region’s adoption of O-RAN will pick up only when the technology’s economic viability improves and indigenous suppliers in the region become competitive alternatives to Chinese ones.

Improving the cost-effectiveness and scalability of O-RAN should therefore be a priority for the US’s R&D push through the Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund. Proponents of O-RAN should also address the risks from the increased attack surface—the number of points at which it can be penetrated—that O-RAN creates by design, as well as other security vulnerabilities.

Looking ahead, it’s also unclear how the US push for a tech decoupling from China in 5G will evolve should President Joe Biden lose his bid for re-election later this year. The Biden administration’s approach to 5G and O-RAN has not been a significant departure from policy developed during the Trump administration.

Nevertheless, the way in which the US works with its allies and partners to corral support for O-RAN adoption is likely to change under a future Trump-led administration. It may choose to pursue a more adversarial approach towards the O-RAN Alliance, or even revive the ‘Clean Network’ program that was quietly phased out by the Biden administration in 2021.

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