“Facing [its own] backwardness in the field of 5G technology… the longer the U.S. goes down this “divergent path” [ORAN], the harder it will be to return to a leadership position in communications technology development.”
“面对在5G技术领域的落后，美国越是在这种“歧路”上走下去，就越难回到通信技术发展的领导地位。”Xiang Ligang, Chairman, Information Consumption Promotion Alliance of China, “U.S. Tries to Take the Shortcut to 5G, but Ends Up Going Astray (美想抄5G近路，结果走上歧途),” Huanqiu Shibao, May 12, 2022
The PRC Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT)-supervised “Information Consumption Promotion Alliance of China (ICA)” took a hard swing at U.S. efforts to promote Open Radio Access Network (ORAN) technology today via an op-ed in Huanqiu Shibao (the Chinese-language version of Global Times). Penned by ICA chairman Xiang Ligang (项立刚) who often appears in the English-language Global Times as an expert commentator. The op-ed opens with the recent news that the U.S. service provider Cellcom is cancelling its ORAN network deployment.
Although coincidental, readers will notice a similarity between the thrust of this op-ed and a Voice of America report published yesterday on the same subject:
“The recent announcement by a local U.S. wireless network operator to abandon the open 5G network technology initiated by the U.S. government in recent years in favor of redeploying legacy 5G equipment is a potentially worrisome sign for the U.S. push for an “Open Radio Access Network” (O-RAN) architecture to replace Huawei equipment.”
“华盛顿 — 最近美国一家地方无线网络运营商宣布放弃美国政府近年来发起的开放式5G网络技术，转而重新部署传统的5G设备，这对美国大力推动“开放式无线电接入网”（Open Radio Access Network，O-RAN）构架来替代华为设备的努力来说无疑不失为一个潜在的令人担忧的迹象。”Voice of America, “U.S. Sanctions on Huawei Achieve Initial Results, But Outlook Still Not Optimistic (美国制裁华为初见成效，但前景仍不容乐观),” May 11, 2022.
Huh? Is VOA saying the U.S. has dropped the Huawei ball?
That was my first take on the new VOA Chinese-language report. But the opening paragraphs do explain the rather startling title, and the body of the report is far less provocative, focusing first on the recent news about Cellcom dropping ORAN and its wider implications, followed by a more general assessment of U.S. success to date regarding Huawei sanctions. Pretty good read once you catch your breath.
Admittedly, the Huanqiu Shibao and VOA reports are a bit off topic for this space, but in another sense not. There’s a quote from the PRC weekly magazine Liaowang on the splash page of this blog which lays out the competitive thrust of Digital China: “Whoever can better recognize and seize the general trend of digitalization, and better adapt to and lead the developmental direction of new forces of production, will be able to win the new omnidirectional competition for comprehensive national power.”
5G is one of the early technical markers for Beijing regarding the “general trend of digitalization.” And where and how this resolves itself is still playing out – as the Huanqiu Shibao and VOA titles reminds us.
But the two products, MIIT (carried by Huanqiu Shibao) and Voice of America, are completely different in orientation and intent. VOA reported the set back and provided context – news. But it has long been the case that some of China’s most effective propaganda simply takes advantage of breaking U.S. news and aligns it with ongoing Party narratives. That’s what happened here: same news, different message.
A lightly-edited DeepL machine translation (for reference only) of the first few paragraphs of the VOA report follows:
WASHINGTON – The recent announcement by a local U.S. wireless network operator to abandon the open 5G network technology initiated by the U.S. government in recent years in favor of redeploying legacy 5G equipment is a potentially worrisome sign for the U.S. push for an “Open Radio Access Network” (O-RAN) architecture to replace Huawei equipment.
华盛顿 — 最近美国一家地方无线网络运营商宣布放弃美国政府近年来发起的开放式5G网络技术，转而重新部署传统的5G设备，这对美国大力推动“开放式无线电接入网”（Open Radio Access Network，O-RAN）构架来替代华为设备的努力来说无疑不失为一个潜在的令人担忧的迹象。
From the former Trump administration to the current Biden administration, the U.S. has launched several rounds of sanctions against Huawei since 2019 and has warned other countries not to use Huawei-related products. In the great power game competition between the U.S. and China, the Huawei dispute is not only about who will dominate the next generation of mobile communications technology, but also a concentrated reflection of the battle for technological and even geopolitical influence between the two countries. After several years of unremitting efforts by the two governments, analysts say that, in general, the United States cutting off the Huawei chip supply and other measures have been quite successful, but also still faces many serious challenges. In addition, the United States to replace Huawei equipment and strongly advocate the open O-RAN architecture also needs to be further tested in the market.
High hopes for O-RAN
Cellcom, a provider of network services in Wisconsin and Michigan, began deploying O-RAN network equipment in 2018 and was one of the first companies in the U.S. to begin practicing the emerging concept. But the company recently said it decided to abandon its efforts in this open source and open concept-based network technology solution after several years of effort due to issues such as cost and equipment availability.
A lightly-edited DeepL/Google machine translation (for reference only) of Xiang Ligang’s op-ed in Huanqiu Shibao follows:
Recently, a media report said that Cellcom, a small telecom network service provider in Wisconsin and Michigan, announced that it had abandoned the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) initiated by the U.S. government in recent years, and instead deployed traditional 5G equipment. Cellcom has been working on deploying O-RAN network equipment since 2018 and was one of the first companies in the U.S. to begin hands-on implementation of the emerging concept. The company said it gave up because equipment from upstream vendors was too expensive and cost more than budgeted, and the technology did not work as expected, which caused widespread concern in the industry. In fact, Cellcom is not the only company that has expressed doubts about O-RAN. Previously Neil McRae, chief architect at BT Group, also questioned whether the adoption of open access technology could save costs.
O-RAN is an important mechanism that has been heavily promoted in the United States in recent years, and there are now more than 60 mobile network operators worldwide participating in O-RAN testing and deployment. Since all software and hardware in traditional international telecom networks came from the same supplier, this gave existing major vendors such as Huawei an absolute advantage in the competition. To address the so-called “security challenges” caused by the over-reliance on Huawei equipment for 5G networks, the U.S. launched the “Clean Network” initiative, an important part of which is to have software and hardware elements supplied by a variety of trusted vendors, that is, O-RAN. In fact, several major U.S. bills and important policy statements on China in recent years have included strong advocacy for O-RAN, such as the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” released by the White House in February this year, which emphasized that the United States will continue to vigorously promote the construction of secure global telecommunications networks and “focus on developing 5G provider diversity and Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) technology”.
Essentially, in the context of its lagging 5G technology, the U.S. hopes O-RAN will provide a new set of mechanisms to defeat traditional telecom equipment companies such as Huawei and Ericsson, provide the U.S. a headstart in 5G technology, and even achieve a dominant position in 6G development. Expressed in layman’s terms, if I can’t beat you on this track, let’s run on a different track.
However, O-RAN has its inherent limitations, and many industry insiders have had reservations about it from the start. Current telecom equipment is a complex system with extremely high requirements for security and stability. In addition to providing hardware equipment, a communication equipment manufacturer also provides a large amount of software, network planning, network construction, operation and maintenance, and service support. This is a huge system. Telecom operators buy far more than just a few pieces of equipment, instead a complete capability. Given that there is no local telecom equipment manufacturer that can provide these comprehensive capabilities, the United States wants to come up with another mechanism, an enterprise alliance, and an open architecture. All equipment manufacturers can use open standards to produce equipment and develop software.
The United States wants to build a white-box O-RAN Alliance like this, so that more manufacturers will enter equipment development, both to reduce the price of equipment, but also to avoid the use of Chinese companies’ equipment, thinking that this will ensure network security. This thinking is full of naivety. First, telecom networks have telecom-level requirements, and a momentary outage is a major incident. Therefore, telecom operators require equipment vendors to do much more than just sell hardware or software, but also to ensure 99.9% reliability. If a failure occurs, the equipment vendor is required to deal with it at the time, instead of not knowing whether the problem is hardware or software, or operation and maintenance problems. This creates a situation where everyone is blaming each other. But in the so-called white box O-RAN Alliance, equipment vendors no longer support telecommunications network systems, which requires telecommunications operators themselves to have strong integration, operations, and maintenance capabilities. Telecommunications operators must solve their own network problems, which is clearly against the laws of industry development. In addition, the United States replaces traditional telecom equipment vendors with the white box O-RAN Alliance based on the assumption that a large number of companies providing equipment will lower the price because of competition. In fact, because of industrial concentration, Huawei and other equipment manufacturers have an annual sales volume of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of base stations, so the price is instead cheaper. However, companies providing equipment for O-RAN, due to few orders, extremely high research and development costs, and no technology accumulation, naturally push up prices.
Historically, after gradually losing its dominant position in the field of mobile communications, U.S. telecommunications equipment manufacturers no longer rely on how to achieve technological breakthroughs, but instead come up with many tricks using 2G and 3G standards, such as Wimax. These finally end in failure so US telecommunications equipment manufacturers have basically withdrawn from the telecommunications market. In the face of their own backwardness in the field of 5G technology, the United States continues to introduce new concepts, from O-RAN to Starlink, and the so-called crossover from 5G to 6G. Whether just bean counting or wanting to take shortcuts, they break from the mature path of communications technology development and are unwilling to work hard on technology accumulation. Thus, the longer the U.S. goes down this “divergent path,” the harder it will be to return to a leadership position in communications technology development.