Facing [its own] backwardness in the field of 5G technology… the longer the U.S. goes down this “divergent path” [i.e. O-RAN], the harder it will be to return to a leadership position in communications technology development.Xiang Ligang, Chairman, Information Consumption Promotion Alliance of China
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 (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 similarly between the thrust of this op-ed and a Voice of America report published yesterday on the same subject. The two products are completely different in orientation and intent, 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.
5G is one of the early technical markers for Beijing regarding the “general trend of digitalization.” And as an “authoritative” column in the Xinhua-run magazine Outlook Weekly pointed out earlier this year, “whoever can better understand and grasp the general trend of digitalization… will be able to win the new omnidirectional competition for comprehensive national power.” The Cellcom announcement provided just enough evidence for MIIT to spin an argument that China has a better grasp than the U.S. – and make it sound like news.
A barely-edited DeepL/Google machine translation (for reference only) of Xiang Ligang’s op-ed in Huanqiu Shibao follows:
Xiang Ligang: U.S. Tries to Take the Shortcut to 5G, but Ends Up Going astray
Source: Huanqiu Shibao
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.