Will the Quad get tangled with the O-RAN Alliance?


While China and Huawei maybe won the 5G race, all is certainly not lost for those who seek to reduce their dependence on the Chinese telecom infrastructure.

When the Quad was summoned again in 2020, great media attention was paid to the military capabilities of individual states. Many believed it was a purely military coalition to counter China’s aggression in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region in general. However, alliance leaders have officially declared that the Quad is also open to collaboration on other strategic issues such as infrastructure and climate change.

Technology was a major area of ​​focus at the first in-person summit held in the United States. The Quad has already created a task force on critical and emerging technologies to facilitate cooperation and innovation between states. Semiconductors and 5G were the areas of interest in the tech sphere with the idea of ​​using alternative 5G technology to create a global communication standard.

An effort to deploy and diversify 5G is already underway with the “support and essential role of Quad governments in promoting and promoting a diverse, resilient and secure telecommunications ecosystem”, as mentioned by White House officials.

This is where open radio access networks (O-RAN) and the O-RAN alliance come in.

What is the O-RAN alliance and why was it born?

O-RAN is a term used for industry-wide standards for Radio Access Network (RAN) interfaces (at radio wave frequencies) that support interoperability between equipment of different providers and offer network flexibility at a lower cost. The O-RAN alliance was designed to create the specifications of the interfaces and functions used in the O-RAN architecture. It started as a German initiative to create a global standard for communications that would allow interoperability between networking software, hardware, and cloud systems from different vendors using a single RAN solution.

The alliance is working to release new RAN specifications, open software for a common RAN solution, and help its members implement, integrate and test their networks.

With over 29+ members, the O-RAN alliance now has both telecom providers and network operators like AT&T and China Mobile as part of the group. The alliance is also encouraging the entry of small businesses into the sector working on specific interoperable 5G solutions. This is done in the hope of creating a common RAN platform by mixing and matching solutions found across the world.

Nokia’s exit may be a game-changer

Nokia, which was one of the founding members of the O-RAN alliance, recently decided to temporarily halt work on the O-RAN system for fear of sanctions from the US government. This was in response to the US federal government’s blacklisting of several Chinese companies that are officially part of the alliance.

Nokia, on the other hand, has been explicit in its statement about how these companies hold considerable clout in the industry and cannot be excluded from the organization. Nokia representatives stressed the need to access and use the 5G technology owned by these Chinese companies to develop the open RAN system. However, with the threat of sanctions looming for its collaboration with Chinese companies, Nokia has decided to suspend its engagement in the O-RAN alliance.

Tommi Uitto, president of mobile networks at Nokia, said the company will pause work on O-RAN in the September 14 statement. Photo: Nokia website.

There is no definitive timetable given by Nokia on the resumption of work on O-RAN. It’s also unclear when the U.S. government will lift the ban on Chinese telecommunications companies. This creates a dilemma for everyone else in the alliance as they relied heavily on Nokia as a potential global supplier. This, in turn, opens the door to better collaboration on O-RAN between Quad members.

The O-RAN is an extended system benefiting from contributions from several suppliers. This means better innovation, additional services, the use of third-party products and more proprietary RAN-related equipment. With Nokia and other Chinese companies on the sidelines, there would be more market space that can be occupied by Quad State companies. Network operators in these states now have the opportunity to become global vendors and sellers, helping to lower their deployment costs and improve network performance.

One of the founding principles of the O-RAN alliance was to break the oligopoly of the telecoms market. While India and Japan have previously said they want to work together on 5G, the Quad Summit’s focus on technology would help provide better opportunities for businesses in those states by leading the creation of a global O-RAN network for improved communications.

5G strategic angle needs O-RAN

For some time, 5G has remained a ground of geopolitical contestation between technically advanced players like the United States, Europe and China. With Huawei dominating the market, concerns have been expressed about the Chinese state’s influence on the company and how Huawei’s 5G technology could be used by the state for its own purposes.

Citing the threat to national security, the United States has already imposed restrictions on large chip companies from selling critical hardware to Huawei that can be used in the manufacture of 5G devices, derailing the installation of Huawei technology. in the country. The UK has also followed suit and set a timetable for removing Huawei equipment from its 5G networks.

As China maintains its stranglehold on patents and 5G technical standards through its companies, other states are looking to diversify their telecom supply chains.

O-RAN offers a particularly attractive method for those looking to navigate the complexities of 5G networks. It aims to ensure interoperability and resolve issues that may persist with the use of equipment from different companies for the operation of 5G networks. This, combined with the strategic importance that 5G holds in the technological realm, will help the Quad and its allies to develop a common global communication system. This, in turn, would allow each state not to rely on the technology of a single entity but to build networks using their trusted local businesses and would provide the opportunity to create a global standard of communication. .

Reduced dependence on China’s digital infrastructure, its suppliers, and China-influenced technical standards will serve as a common ground for Quad’s collaboration on the development of O-RAN.

Creating a global open RAN system will help increase 5G coverage and maintain the scalability and sustainability of 5G networks. What’s going to be interesting is that, with China and Huawei clearly winning the 5G race and thus setting international technical standards in the area of ​​5G technology, will an alliance like the Quad push the envelope? O-RAN alliance as an official technical standardization body with its own influence?

With the alliance’s Chinese companies blacklisted by the United States and Nokia ending its O-RAN work, will the alliance take a new avatar to create an international communications standard to counter the China’s influence in the 5G field?

Arjun Gargeyas works with the Takshashila Institution and specializes in the geopolitics of emerging international technology standards.


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