“Facing [its own] backwardness in the field of 5G technology… the longer the U.S. goes down this “divergent path” [O-RAN], 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 O-RAN 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 O-RAN 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 O-RAN 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 former President Trump 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.

从前总统特朗普到目前的拜登政府,美国自2019年起已经对华为发起了多轮制裁,并警告其他国家不要使用华为的相关产品。在美中两国的大国博弈竞争中,华为之争不仅涉及到谁将主导下一代移动通信技术,同时也是两国科技、乃至地缘政治影响力之争的集中反映。在历经两届政府几年来的不懈努力之后,分析人士称,总的来说,美国切断华为芯片供应等措施相当的成功,但也仍面临很多严峻的挑战,此外,美国为取代华为设备而大力提倡的开放式O-RAN构架也有待市场的进一步检验。

High hopes for O-RAN

寄厚望于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.

威斯康星州和密歇根州的网络服务供应商蜂窝通信(Cellcom)从2018年开始着手部署O-RAN网络设备,是美国最早开始践行这一新兴概念的公司之一。但该公司最近表示,在历经几年努力之后决定因费用和设备供应等问题放弃在这一基于开源和开放理念的网络技术解决方案。

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.

近日,有媒体报道称,美国威斯康星州和密歇根州的一家小型电信网络服务供应商蜂窝通信宣布放弃美国政府近年来发起的开放式无线接入网(O-RAN),转而部署传统的5G设备。蜂窝通信从2018年起着手部署O-RAN网络设备,是美国最早开始实操这一新兴概念的公司之一。该企业表示,放弃的原因是上游供应商提供的设备太过昂贵,成本超出预算,但是技术效果却没有达到预期,这在业内引起广泛关注。事实上,蜂窝通信并不是唯一对O-RAN表示质疑的公司。此前英国电信集团首席架构师尼尔·麦克雷也质疑采用开放式接入技术能否节省成本。

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”.

O-RAN是美国近年来大力推动的重要机制,目前在世界范围内已经有60多家移动网络运营商参与O-RAN的测试和部署。由于在传统国际电信规范的网络中,所有软件和硬件都来自同一家供货商,令华为等现有主要厂商在竞争中占有绝对优势。为了解决5G网络过度依赖华为设备而带来的所谓“安全挑战”,美国推出“清洁网络”计划,其中重要一环就是由可信赖的供应商打造基于不同供应商的软件和硬件元素,也就是O-RAN。事实上,美国近年来涉及中国问题的几项大型法案以及重要政策声明中都包含有大力提倡O-RAN的内容,比如今年2月份白宫发布的“印太战略”中就强调,美国将继续大力推动建设安全的全球电信网络,“集中精力发展5G供应商多元化和开放式无线电接入网络(O-RAN)技术”。

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.

从本质上说,O-RAN就是美国希望在5G技术落后的背景下,用一套新机制打败华为、爱立信等传统电信设备公司,取得5G技术的先机,甚至在6G发展中取得主导地位。通俗来说就是,这条赛道我跑不过你,那就换一条赛道跑跑看。

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.

然而,O-RAN有其固有的局限性,很多业内人士从一开始对此就持保留意见。当前的电信设备是一个复杂的系统,对安全性和稳定性的要求极高。一个通信设备商除了提供硬件设备,还包括大量的软件、网络规划、网络建设、运营维护、服务支持等,这是一个庞大的系统。电信运营商购买的远不止几台设备,而是一个完整的能力。鉴于自己已经没有本土电信设备商能够提供这些综合能力,所以美国就想搞出另一个机制,弄一个企业联盟,搞出一个开放的架构,所有设备制造商都可以用开放的标准来生产设备,开发软件。

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.

美国想通过建设这样一个白盒化的O-RAN联盟,让更多厂商加入到设备开发的阵营中,既能降低设备价格,又能避免用中国企业的设备,以为这样就能保证其网络安全,殊不知这种思路充满天真、冒着傻气。首先,电信网络有电信级别的要求,发生片刻中断就是重大事故。因此,电信运营商对设备商的要求,远不只是买一个硬件或者软件,而是要保证99.9%的可靠。如果出现故障,需要设备商第一时间进行处理,而不是出了问题,不知道是硬件还是软件,或是运营维护的问题,从而出现大家相互推诿的局面。但在所谓白盒化的O-RAN联盟中,不再是由一个设备商来提供电信网络系统,这就需要电信运营商本身有强大的集成和运维能力,需要电信运营商在网络出现问题后自己解决问题,而这显然是违反行业发展规律的。另外,美国用白盒化的O-RAN联盟来代替传统电信设备商,还基于一个假设,就是通过大量企业来做设备,会因为竞争而降低设备价格。实际上,因为产业集中,华为等设备商一个基站年销售量就有几十万台,甚至上百万台,这样一来价格反而便宜,而为O-RAN提供设备的企业,由于订单很少,研发成本极高,又没有技术积累,自然会推高价格。

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.

从历史上看,在逐渐失去移动通信领域的优势地位后,美国电信设备商就不再靠想着如何实现技术突破,而是通过另起炉灶,在2G标准、3G标准上搞出很多花样,如Wimax等,最后都以失败告终,以致如今美国电信设备商基本上退出电信市场。面对在5G技术领域的落后,美国不断推出新概念,从O-RAN到星链,再到所谓的跨过5G到6G,心里打的小算盘无非还是想走捷径,打破成熟的通信技术发展路径,不愿在技术积累上下功夫。然而,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。(作者是信息消费联盟理事长)