Resetting the 5G goalposts: How the US declares victory

With the US playing catch-up in a capitalism game it may have already lost, a “game-changing” opportunity arises: One that could reset the rules to the US’ advantage. If only its leaders don’t muck it up first.

Will 5G survive the pandemic?
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executive guide

What is 5G? Everything you need to know about the new wireless revolution

It's a capital improvement project the size of the entire planet, replacing one wireless architecture created this century with another one that aims to lower energy consumption and maintenance costs.

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The fear -- and it is palpable -- is that the US will look bad.

The leading technology for the replacement of the world's wireless communications infrastructure was susceptible to intrusion and attack from malicious actors. Users' privacy could be put at risk. What's more, intelligence agencies argued the new platform could be appropriated by adversaries to gain access to sensitive systems. An industry alliance was formed to promote the platform as a veritable garden for the future of the entire world's remote business.  Its members asserted that security concerns were overblown, even manufactured. They fended off accusations that the platform represented efforts of its backers' home government to decrease the surplus population by microwave radiation delivered directly to their brains.

Also: Is 5G done? Controlling the damage, and controlling the outcome

But the charges against the initiative ran so deep, and the resulting shame was so acute, that the project was abandoned. The wireless industry embraced its alternative so quickly that its very name was forgotten, in many cases wiped from the web.

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The year was 2007, the technology was WiMAX, its principal promoters were Intel and Sprint, its consortium was the WiMAX Alliance, and the country accused of underplaying or ignoring security concerns, as well as conspiring to "cook its own people," was the United States of America.

Remember this pattern. The great thing about history repeating itself is that it gives one repeated opportunities to change it.

The O-ring

As we reported here two years ago, China Mobile effectively gave birth to 5G wireless in 2011, when it first investigated the benefits of separating the core radio signal processor of a cellular transmitter from its baseband unit (BBU). Such a separation could divide the processes that could be delegated to a cloud data canter, from those that actually had to accompany the physical BBU. The result: Smaller BBUs that consumed less power, and were, therefore, easier to cool. Cooling had become the greatest single non-staffing expense in the maintenance of a transmitter tower. Removing and relocating the core processes enabled towers to be cooled naturally, by the wind.

In the race to be 4G's core technology, WiMAX lost out to LTE, a process created and championed in large part by Japan's NTT DoCoMo. American interests could not have had a better opportunity to win redemption. To its credit, AT&T seized that opportunity, working in collaboration with China Mobile early on. The core of 5G did come to fruition, largely due to 3GPP -- a joint effort with global stakeholders, which they, in several aspects, led.

But with the pandemic having stretched supply chains thin and wiped out consumer discretionary spending worldwide, operators need a new business model that's less dependent on the success of 5G phones, whose introductions are now likely to be delayed. Now operators must rely on their relationships with the global wireless community more than ever -- at a time when trade wars have already decimated the relationship between the US and China, strained the relationship between the US and Europe, and called into doubt the very existence of any other relationship whatsoever.

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"The current consumer-centric 3GPP Release 15 5G RAN on the market is yet to meet different critical infrastructure sectors' need," remarked Sylvia Lu, vice chair of the UK5G International Working Group.  "The transportation systems sector, for example, to support a reliable and secure connection between vehicles, infrastructure, and roadside units, requires V2X [vehicle-to-everything] capability and continuous 5G/4G coverage. The manufacturing sector will need URLLC [ultra-reliable low-latency communication] for real-time process control and automation applications. Those capabilities are still under development in 3GPP Release 16, due in June 2020 (radio specifications are delayed by three months due to the pandemic)."

"RAN" stands for "radio access network," and is the outermost layer of wireless communications. It's how a device makes contact with the network.  5G expanded the RAN concept dramatically, to incentivize a wealth of new applications that may have been impossible under 4G LTE. China Mobile's original model of a RAN with separable functions was named C-RAN, with non-Chinese vendors asserting the "C" stood for "cloud."

In the last few years, a global consortium of operators and manufacturers has formed around an open-source derivative of the C-RAN model. It's called O-RAN, with non-Chinese vendors asserting the "O" stands for "open."

"The O-RAN approach in building out networks," explained Lu, in a note to ZDNet, "helps to cultivate more network equipment vendors. At present, vendors consolidate their market share by combining hardware and software in their contracts. This sets the bar higher for new entrants to build the scale and expertise to compete and require a significantly large investment. O-RAN approach seeks to solve this problem by separating hardware from software, hence creating conditions for more players in the ecosystem. Virtualization technology now makes it easier for small, innovative start-ups to create and supply network functions in software, [and] hence could enable diversification in the supply chain."

Dr. Paul Carter, CEO of communications testing firm Global Wireless Solutions, asserts that a global effort will absolutely be required to forge the applications that will sustain the 5G transition efforts, even as short-term capital investment sources dry up.

"What we are seeing today is that there is ample room for improvement in terms of connectivity-related applications -- for example, remote working applications -- and 5G has the ability to provide this," stated Dr. Carter, in a note to ZDNet.  "And to the extent that operators and governments can work together to foster faster development and implementation of 5G, all the better.  It also starts with better communication to the public about the benefits of 5G, including how it will help individuals get through today, improve their lives, and be stronger as a community in the future."

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Conceivably, if the component containing 5G radio technology were based on a completely open plan -- as much a "white box" for developers and engineers as the "clone" PCs of the 1980s -- then the barrier to entry for other players to get involved and become competitive, could be knocked down. The threat of vendor lock-in for any operator contracting with Huawei, Ericsson, or Nokia would evaporate, as Cisco, Samsung, and potentially others such as Qualcomm and Intel, could suddenly become options. Perhaps the name of the startup entering 5G's new open ring has yet to be concocted.

Among the O-RAN Alliance's members are China Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, NTT DoCoMo, Sprint, Cisco, Dell Technologies, Facebook, Microsoft, Nokia, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, and ZTE. China's interests are well represented, along with America's and Europe's. Huawei, however, has been an active opponent of O-RAN, arguing since well before the pandemic that while cheaper up-front, a white box would be more expensive and difficult to maintain over time, and would never perform as well as its own components.

In a Brookings Institute blog post last February, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote:

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.

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During the virtual presentation of Red Hat Summit last April 28, that company made the case for a complete virtualization of radio access networks around an open-source platform. To make its case, Red Hat brought out Aykut Demirkol, who manages broadband and telco cloud services for Turkcell, which was believed to have held a 72% market share of Turkish post-paid mobile telephone subscribers in 2018. Still, with respect to its capability to launch a Turkish 5G revolution, Turkcell is an upstart. It would be much easier for Turkcell to obtain forward momentum, Demirkol asserted, if it weren't being blocked by high up-front investment costs.

"We are working on the virtualization of our RAN," Demirkol told his audience.  "We need a platform, a cloud on the edge."

ZDNet asked Demirkol whether virtualizing Turkcell's RAN means lifting-and-shifting its existing RAN into a virtual environment, or does it need to be rearchitected? In other words, is 5G absolutely required?

"For our virtual RAN, we are going for a re-architecture," he responded.  "Our focus is trying to use O-RAN standards -- a standardized way of deploying RAN... so that it can be interpretable to different solutions. But it does require re-architecture from scratch." In other words, Turkcell perceives it will be worth the effort to rebuild its core wireless infrastructure on a new model, if that model is open enough to allow a variety of applications, and if the end product can all be managed through one central cloud for all its network edge deployments and telco core simultaneously.

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The wrong horse

O-RAN could be the wild card in the US' hand: a chance for American interests to show leadership in a global circle of innovators, patching over the rough areas in 5G's short history thus far, while at the same time isolating Huawei on an island unto itself. Hundreds of Turkcells worldwide, some in the US, could find their footing. Rather than "other," the "O" could stand for "opportunity." Who could want to pass that up?

"The problem is that this is just pie-in-the-sky," asserted US Attorney General William Barr, in an unprecedented and even unanticipated speech last Feb. 6.  "This approach is completely untested, and would take many years to get off the ground, and would not be ready for prime time for a decade, if ever."

What's the Attorney General's alternative? "Putting our large market and financial muscle behind" an alignment, to use Barr's phrase, with Nokia or Ericsson, or perhaps both -- not funding what they do necessarily since they're both doing O-RAN, but helping them do something more American, or at least more "western." Here, the "O" stands for "uh-oh."

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"What we need today," continued Barr, "is a product that can win contracts right now -- a proven infrastructure that network operators will make a long-term commitment to today.  In other words, we need a product that can blunt and turnaround Huawei's momentum currently."

"It's a delicate balance, right?" remarked Doug Brake, who directs broadband and spectrum policy for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "You don't want to jump in and pick favorite companies. You don't want policy to be perceived as doing that."

On the other hand, Brake told ZDNet, echoing a prophecy of the pandemic era, "there's an increasing awareness that not choosing to have a strategy, not having a plan in place, is the same as having no plan. And I think policymakers can do this in a way that's not heavy-handed. These are market forces that are already working through the system, but part of the goal should be identifying real challenges to what makes this difficult to scale up these technologies, and helping operators and others in the ecosystem overcome those challenges. It might be that there are potential roadblocks that we don't quite anticipate when it comes to really scaling this up."

Theoretically, the US could adopt a stance toward 5G that puts it on a priority level with the restoration of roads, bridges, railways, and waterways -- a public infrastructure project that could be touted as part of the nation's post-pandemic recovery. It would stand in contrast to the US Government's recent stance toward meddling in an industry run by private enterprise. But in an economy where capital is harder to come by, private interests might accept a shot of adrenaline from public funding, and public officials might not look so bad helping the process along.

Prof. Robert W Heath, Jr. of the University of Texas at Austin was an early contributor to some of the more influential technologies in the 5G portfolio -- most notably vehicle-to-everything communication (V2X), the lower-latency, more highly mobile, Internet-of-Things protocol that would support autonomous vehicles and greatly enhanced transportation industry telematics. Heath believes there are ways to adapt the 5G portfolio without disturbing private enterprise, by tying its goals to the public, physical infrastructure projects that will undoubtedly be needed.

"Perhaps during the expansion of a road, they'll put in more conduits or fiber, or they'll make the lampposts smarter," said Heath, "which would then allow someone to put in a 5G base station easily, later."

Yet there could be some supplemental sources of government backing, Heath added, noting funding for the National Science Foundation that had originally been earmarked for another industry, diverted to wireless research, and eventually diverted again toward smart electricity grids.  "But I think the people making decisions about the money are, day-to-day, experiencing the benefits of connectivity, and the drawbacks of it not working," he remarked.  "It's got to be on their minds, and they've got to be thinking about how to make it better."

"In the medium term, rather than positioning 5G networks as 'critical infrastructure,'" advised UK5G's Lu, "perhaps focus on demonstrating the value 5G could bring to the economy through testbed and trials, meanwhile exploring through the testbeds and trials what policy interventions are needed to deliver the longer-term objective on critical infrastructures." Lu cited the UK Government's 2017 establishment of its 5G Testbeds and Trials (5GTT) program to build use cases and deployment scenarios for 5G in the UK, with over £1 billion in funding from a digital communications initiative. In 2019, UK5G estimated that a well-funded national 5G initiative could contribute as much as 2% annual growth, or £3.76 billion, to the country's growth.

Signals

ITIF's Brake suggests that, instead of the US picking a horse and doubling down, it should help spur investment in 5G during this pandemic not so much by making the investments themselves, but by signaling those who could: Venture capital markets.

"Telecommunications equipment is a sector of the economy," said Brake, "that given the massive global economies-of-scale, it's pretty difficult for a small startup to try break into. But I think that, if US policymakers at the highest level were to signal to the market, and to venture capital firms, that this is a serious priority of the US, both at the government level and at the operator level, it would see more money and more interest in this opportunity toward virtualization and radio access equipment."

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It's not like O-RAN is the only "open" option. The Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which was launched in February 2016, is Facebook's initiative to build alternative core, services, transport, and access architectures for communications networks. Though A-G Barr did not refer to TIP during his speech, with respect to "a proven infrastructure" -- in other words, not something requiring reinvention -- TIP may be the only candidate for that role. Perhaps Barr knew that, or maybe he was just thinking out loud.

TIP's own working coalition, co-chaired by engineers from Intel and Europe's Vodafone, is called the OpenRAN Project Group (note the slight difference in the titling). Its mission at present is to build working use cases for Facebook's TIP model.

In case Barr wasn't confused enough, however, Tuesday saw the launching of a third industry coalition: the Open RAN Policy Coalition (not the same -- note the space between "Open" and "RAN"). Its members also include Intel and Vodafone, along with AT&T, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, NTT, Oracle, Qualcomm, Rakuten Mobile, Samsung, Telefonica, Verizon, and VMware.

It's an industry alliance formed to promote the new platform as a veritable garden for the future of the entire world's remote business. It's security concerns and fear of vendor lock-in, they assert, that drove them to this point in history.

"We believe that there are a variety of steps that policymakers can take," reads the new coalition's website, "to facilitate a vibrant marketplace of suppliers based upon open interfaces." One of those steps is for governments to "signal" (there's that word again) support for open and interoperable solutions, which can be taken to mean, steering sources of capital towards sources of research.

What the open RAN proponents, either separately or collectively, are offering the US is an opportunity to "do a Microsoft" -- to win back a market it had lost by rendering the value of that win irrelevant. If the focal point of a global 5G industry becomes the applications built on its portfolio of platforms -- the autonomous vehicles, the telehealth networks, the remote surgeries -- and the hub centered at that focal point is an open radio access network rather than a proprietary core, then whether Huawei leads Nokia and Ericsson in telco equipment market share becomes entirely moot. It would be like crediting the electric company for all the cool things you can do on your iPad.

It's a way to reset the goalposts, not just by moving them further towards the edge of the field, but by trucking them into a baseball stadium and playing a completely different game under new rules. To get it done, though, the US will need to restrain itself from backing a horse — especially certain US officials who shouldn't have a horse in this race anyway. WiMAX may have been the wrong horse in 2007, but LTE has several strikes against it -- long-term downsides should have been worked out before the 4G battle was declared over and done.

Somewhere in this mix of "open" alternatives is a blueprint for playing the next round right. As former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin Powell often pleaded with his superiors in government, history has one inviolable rule: If you break it, you own it.

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