Moving from ‘secret sauce’ to open standards for 5G

The logo of Huawei Technologies is pictured in front of the German headquarters of the Chinese telecommunications giant in Duesseldorf, Germany, February 18, 2019.    REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay - RC16C5079E90

“Donald Trump ‘apoplectic’ in call with Boris Johnson over Huawei,” the Financial Times headlined on February 6. The source of the rage was the British government’s decision to allow UK networks to install Huawei 5G equipment. The London Evening Standard reported the call ended with the president “slamming down the phone” on the prime minister of one of our closest allies.

For months high-powered members of the Trump administration had been working to convince London to ban the Chinese vendor from the UK. When the Johnson government allowed a limited amount of Huawei equipment into UK networks, the official U.S. response was unhappy but muted. The phone call in the last week of January between the two leaders was reportedly far from muted. “British officials…were taken aback by the force of the president’s language towards Mr. Johnson,” the FT reported.

Is There A Plan for Dealing With Huawei?

The Trump administration’s strategy for dealing with Huawei has not been one of clear-cut consistency. After his original statement about Huawei’s cybersecurity threat, for instance, the president suggested that maybe the Huawei matter was really a trade issue. When the Commerce Department imposed restrictions on Huawei-related trade, waivers were granted so that some U.S. companies could continue to do business with Huawei. Then the Defense Department tried to block the Commerce Department’s restrictions on U.S. company sales to Huawei on the grounds that it hurts the companies’ revenue and thus their research budgets, then a couple of weeks later reversed itself.

The administration’s convoluted Huawei policy took several more twists and turns the week following the Trump-Johnson contretemps. It all began when the attorney general of the United States proposed yet another way to deal with Huawei. “Barr suggests U.S. consider investing in Nokia, Ericsson to counter Huawei,” The Washington Post headlined. In a major speech, William Barr floated the idea of “American ownership of a controlling stake, either directly or through a consortium of private American and allied companies.”

The attorney general appeared to be sending two messages. One could be signaling that the Justice Department would look favorably on a U.S. company (or companies) seeking to buy control of the Nordic suppliers. The even bolder—and certainly headline grabbing—signal was that government “directly” control these companies. Such government control of the means of production, of course, is the classic definition of socialism; an amazing suggestion a time when the president is describing Democrats as “socialists,” and no doubt why the White House quickly shot down the ownership proposal.

Regardless of which interpretation one puts on the Barr proposal, it is fighting Huawei with yesterday’s ideas and technology.

It may seem as though 5G has been around for a long time (at least in the press), but many of the essential standardized elements won’t be released until June. That release will open the door to an all-IP network architecture with the potential to consume nearly all of the fragmented proprietary protocols that have historically defined telecommunications infrastructure. It is a development that opens new opportunities for dealing with Huawei.

When White House National Economic Council head Larry Kudlow pushed back on the Barr proposal, his response reflected these new realities. The attorney general, however, chose to ignore the new capabilities and hold on to tradition, specifically disparaging the software-driven solution as “just pie in the sky” and “completely untested.”

Harnessing the power of software to attack the Huawei challenge is exactly what a bipartisan group of senators has proposed. Led by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and joined by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and others, the senators have introduced legislation to break the Huawei dominance by helping telecommunications networks use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware for 5G in place of the Huawei-enabling focus on proprietary systems.

Software is Eating the World

Back in 2011 Marc Andreesen famously observed, “Software is eating the world.” Fifth generation wireless technology is part of that evolution. Amidst all the hype about 5G, what makes it different is the simple reality that it uses software to virtualize activities that were once performed by function-specific pieces of hardware.

Huawei would be disadvantaged if telecommunications networks threw off their old ways and began to think like Google and other digital age companies. When Google decides to expand its server farm, for instance, open standards allow it to pick and choose among vendors. The current implementation of 5G wireless networks, in contrast, are still built using proprietary systems developed by individual vendors. If telecommunications networks used open standards equipment, Huawei would not have such a chokehold on wireless infrastructure.

At a time when the internet’s open protocols are allowing anyone to build services, the networks that deliver those services have been stuck with proprietary protocols. If you bought Nokia equipment, for example, you couldn’t mix and match it with Ericsson equipment without serious headaches and cost. Huawei, for instance, makes no bones about how its radio gear won’t interoperate with non-Huawei gear.

Being wedded to proprietary systems is so 20th century. The advances in the 21st century have been based on dumping closed proprietary protocols in favor of software-driven open standards. One only need consider how it once required discrete, proprietary pieces of hardware to make a phone call, watch a video, or have computer functionality. Today, those activities no longer require specific devices because they have been converted from hardware to software.

The 5G standard itself is open and interoperable—any radio access network (RAN) using the standard will be interoperable with any device or network conforming to the standard. When it comes to the infrastructure that delivers those 5G messages, however, the openness ends. The RAN is software that takes in radio signals and digitizes them, or vice versa. Because such functionality is complex, intensive, and happens in real time, the infrastructure companies have each developed their own approach that conveniently locks in the purchaser. The open and interoperable 5G standard has thus become buried behind closed proprietary infrastructure.

There is a solution to this situation: adopt practices that make 5G open like most of the rest of the digital world. Such a capability has been under development for several years by a group called the O-RAN Alliance. The basic concept of O-RAN is to replace traditional network vendors’ proprietary technology with software-driven technology that will run on any off-the-shelf hardware.

O-RAN’s “White Box”

Proprietary network hardware is a “black box” of secret processes developed by the manufacturer to deliver a standards-compliant output. Open network architecture, in contrast, is often described as a “white box.” Such a white box substitutes open network architecture for the secret sauce the infrastructure vendors use to keep customers locked into their equipment.

A white box is a nightmare for Huawei’s planned dominance built around proprietary technology. “White Box Doubts Keep Huawei on Outside of O-RAN Alliance,” an industry publication headlined. While Nokia and Ericsson have joined the effort to create an open and interoperable RAN, Huawei has balked—and for obvious reasons. The Chinese company’s rationale for not supporting openness is the tried and true technique of hiding behind a technological smokescreen. The company announced their research had—surprise!—revealed that white box performance lagged Huawei’s proprietary equipment.

Amazingly Huawei and the U.S. attorney general appear to be delivering the same message. Only the old technologies work, any improvement is, in the attorney general’s words, “pie-in-the-sky.”

The attorney general described O-RAN as “completely untested, and would take many years to get off the ground.” Such a judgment would appear to come as a surprise to Vodaphone, the largest wireless carrier outside of China. “We are pleased with trials of OpenRAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe,” Vodaphone Group CEO Nick Reed announced. Putting their money where their tech is, Vodaphone announced a request for quotes to incorporate O-RAN into all its European networks—more than 100,000 cell sites.

In the United States, AT&T has already reoriented to software-defined networks. Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s CEO, told an investor conference the company’s networks, “would have been considered unconventional five years ago.” By moving from hardware to software, Stephenson said, “we innovate our way out of this competitive quagmire where everyone is talking about Huawei.”

Warner-Burr Legislation

Taking advantage of how 5G is still in its early stages, Sens. Burr and Warner, the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee respectively, have a different response to the Huawei challenge. They have introduced legislation to expedite the evolution to O-RAN.

Huawei wins under the old way of building telecom networks, Warner and Burr reasoned—so why not change the rules? Their “Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act” (S. 3189) charts a course clear course forward at a time when the Trump administration is bouncing around.

As industry analyst Roger Entner has observed of O-RAN, “more funding will accelerate everything.” This is precisely what the Warner-Burr bill does by authorizing at least $750 million to create an open architecture research and development fund. Adding to existing developments through additional funding can cement the progress that has already been made.

In addition, the Warner-Burr bill recognizes that success in such an undertaking requires a multinational effort. Thus, the bill authorizes another $500 million for a Multilateral Telecommunications Security Fund, “to accelerate the adoption of trusted and secure equipment globally and to encourage multilateral participation.”

Leadership is About What’s Next

A time-tested maxim is that leadership is about preparing for what’s next, not what was last. The contrast between the Warner-Burr proposal and the bouncing around of the Trump administration is a stark illustration of looking forward versus looking backward.

The president got his headline proclaiming how 5G is a “race America must win.” But in the absence of a firm hand on the steering wheel—presidential vision and leadership beyond tweets and photo ops—it should not be surprising that there is no coordinated strategy among the various components of the U.S. government. As a result, the different parts of the executive branch are acting like bumper cars careening into each other while going in circles.

Google and AT&T are general, unrestricted donors to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions posted in this piece are solely those of the authors and not influenced by any donation.