Nokia presses pause on O-RAN Alliance

Citation of leading Chinese technology firms by US government department leads to Finnish comms tech giant halting activities in open comms software body

Hitherto a driving force for the consortium of suppliers aiming to accelerate the development and deployment of open communications software, Nokia has announced that it is putting on hold its activities under the auspices of the O-RAN alliance, after connections were revealed between fellow member firms Kindroid, Pythium and Inspur, and the Chinese military.

O-RAN’s proponents believe it has the potential to enable operators to broaden their number of network infrastructure partners, and facilitate a better and more cost-effective 5G network service for customers. They add that by disaggregating hardware and software components and leveraging open interfaces, O-RAN technology has the potential to enrich the mobile ecosystem with new solutions and business models, and an expanded multi-supplier ecosystem.

What has given the alliance and open standards more momentum over the past two years has been the bans applied by governments in leading economies, principally such as those in the US and the UK, on communications technology by Chinese suppliers – in particular Huawei – in national communications infrastructures. The governments and industry see open comms technologies as providing a much-needed route to broader diversity in essential technology supply chains.

The Finnish communications technology giant’s commitment to the O-RAN Alliance has to-date been large. It was the first major supplier of its kind to join the consortium, chairing the workgroups defining the Open Fronthaul Interface and the Near Real-Time RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), which will help automate and optimise the network.

In addition, Nokia has also been working in the O-RAN Alliance to help develop the open reference architectures and open interfaces that will be critical to the delivery of interoperable O-RAN solutions and joined the O-RAN Policy Coalition in May 2020 to help enable a comprehensive and secure approach to 5G and future network generations.

Alongside its customers and other industry stakeholders, Nokia added that it would help shape policy choices that will affect how wireless networks are built, including support for research and development in open networks.

Yet such work has now come to a halt following US government concerns regarding the three Chinese companies whose activities, according to the US Bureau of Industry and Security, have been “contrary to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”.

Read more about the O-RAN Alliance and open communications

For its part, in a statement describing its actions, the tech firm said: “Nokia’s commitment to Open RAN and the O-RAN Alliance of which we were the first major supplier 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.”

Commenting on the move by Nokia, in particular what it means for mobile operators and other technology companies, leading telecoms analyst arch firm Strand Consult noted that the realisation of China’s role in the O-RAN Alliance is important not only for its equipment manufacturing members, but its mobile operator members, such as Vodafone and T-Mobile.

“These two operators have touted OpenRAN as an alternative to Huawei and ZTE,” said Strand. “Given the heavy involvement of Chinese government owned firms in OpenRAN, the effort to rip Huawei and ZTE equipment in many cases has amounted to replacement with other Chinese brands.”

“In pausing its contribution to the O-RAN Alliance, Nokia just highlighted an obvious issue [but] authorities have been slow to recognise it. Many policymakers, including some responsible for national security, have been slow to recognise the issue. This delay threatens national security. Other companies are likely to follow Nokia’s lead and not to wait for policymakers to act.”

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