Open RAN technology at the heart of a new battle between the United States and China

The battle for control of 5G networks continues between the United States and China. This showdown is now focused on a rapidly developing technology: Open RAN. This concerns the radio access network (RAN, for Radio Access Network), which allows the connection between a terminal – smartphones in particular – and the heart of the network. In this niche, telecom equipment manufacturers provide all hardware and software solutions, via closed proprietary solutions. But the Open RAN wants to reshuffle the cards. Its objective is to allow myriads of other specialized players to provide the various technological bricks necessary, with open interfaces.

Many telecom operators are campaigning for Open RAN. In France, this is particularly the case for Orange. With Open RAN, mobile operators hope to broaden their range of subcontractors, and no longer depend on a handful of telecom equipment manufacturers. Greater competition in this segment should enable them, on paper, to reduce costs. Open RAN has become, for many, an imperative to prevent the telecom equipment market from becoming a duopoly between Ericsson and Nokia, since Huawei was excluded from many 5G markets.

The United States wants to regain its sovereignty

The United States are strongly campaigning for Open RAN. The country of Uncle Sam pursues two objectives. The first is to put Huawei, accused of spying on behalf of Beijing, permanently offside. But the objective is also, for Washington, to allow the country to regain its sovereignty in telecom equipment and 5G network infrastructure. In fact, the United States no longer has any telecom equipment manufacturers. Unlike the Europeans, who own Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson. But also from China which, in addition to Huawei, has the giant ZTE.

For Washington, Open RAN is “an opportunity for American technology leadership”, underlines the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), in a note published at the beginning of the month. The United States is counting here on significant contributions from its technological champions. The importance of software and virtualization, at the heart of Open RAN, plays in favor of the American forcesexplains the note from Ifri. The cloud market, essential in the virtualization and “cloudification” of networks, is in fact dominated by large American companies such as Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft Azure or Oracle, whose importance in telecoms in the broad sense and in Open RAN projects in particular seem set to grow.”

China very present in the Open RAN ecosystem

But opposite, China does not intend to sit idly by. Huawei certainly does not sit in various international organizations aiming to standardize Open RAN, and in particular the two most important, the O-RAN alliance and Telecom Infra Project. But, no offense to the Americans, many Chinese operators and suppliers are members of these bodies, and are increasingly active there. China Mobile, the largest Chinese public operator, is even one of the five founding members of the O-RAN allianceemphasizes Ifri. He has permanent seats on the board of directors as well as veto rights, and co-chairs ten of its fourteen working groups.. »

That’s not all. The O-RAN alliance even includes many Chinese companies under US sanctions (sometimes due to their links with the Chinese Communist Party or the military), such as Inspur, SMIC, Kindroid, Phytium, H3C, and the three public operators China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom », continues Ifri. This situation also causes tensions. Last September, Nokia had to temporarily leave O-RAN. The Finnish equipment manufacturer feared to be the subject of sanctions itself by working with these Chinese companies within the alliance…

For Beijing, there is no question of finding itself on the sidelines regarding the developments of the Open RAN. This technology could also be an opportunity for Chinese manufacturers. In its note, Ifri believes that China could very well set up a support system for some of its technological flagships, “via subsidies, or privileged access to the market”, to make them dominant players in Open RAN. The hypothesis is more than credible, according to experts from the German Center for Foreign Affairs (DGAP), quoted by Ifri. According to this Berlin institute, “strategic considerations by Chinese state-run think tanks in China suggest that the country sees Open RAN as an opportunity to circumvent US sanctions », and in particular those targeting Huawei and ZTE. The tech war between Beijing and Washington is probably not over.