As Ansel Adams put it, “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept

The story of open RAN is nuanced. Beyond the formidable technology piece, geopolitics inform how the ecosystem of open RAN proponents are framing the issue, which is becoming increasingly politicized.

Earlier this month the Open RAN Policy Coalition launched.  The members at launch were a mix of open RAN vendors and operators. Then, a few days later, Nokia announced it had joined the Open RAN Policy Coalition, making the company unique among its comp set and raising questions about motivation. To wit, Nokia sells fully-integrated RAN technology stacks and presumably wants to sell as many of those as possible. Conversely, open RAN envisions a mix-and-match approach that could lower operator costs and create a more competitive, innovative vendor dynamic.

In discussing Nokia’s involvement in the Open RAN Policy Coalition, Nokia’s Brian Hendricks, VP of government relations in the Americas, first described an emerging narrative wherein the open RAN movement has created a falsely adversarial relationship between legacy vendors “and, on the other side, folks that wanted to create a new ecosystem.”

There is a sense among policymakers, he continued, where, “They felt like they’d be making a choice. If they did things that were more supportive of an acceleration of openness that they’d be harming us. We don’t think that’s true either.” In joining the Open RAN Policy Coalition, Hendricks said, Nokia is saying, “Let’s eliminate the point that we’re not together as an ecosystem and, perhaps, that provides an impetus for action.” 

The general premise of open RAN is developing open, interoperable radio interfaces to allow operators to disaggregate the radio access network thereby cutting costs. The O-RAN Alliance focuses on the nuts and bolts technical specification work. The Telecom Infra Project focuses on proving out open RAN and other technologies in trials. Nokia is a member of all three groups, Ericsson of just the O-RAN Alliance and Huawei isn’t involved in any of the groups.

Rakuten Mobile is the case study in open RAN and cloud-native networks. As it developed and deployed its LTE network in Japan, Rakuten Mobile was very public in discussing its vendors and how they were working together. Nokia, for instance, opened up its radios to work with baseband software from Altiostar.

Now to the geopolitical issue. The core argument is that Chinese governmental and financial institutions help Huawei grow its market share by providing the mechanisms for advantageous financing and payment structures. To more effectively compete, the U.S. should do something similar. But should those efforts be solely focused on supporting U.S. companies involved in open RAN or should it cast a wider net?

“The value of the coalition to us, and maybe to itself, is to speak with a unified voice about policies that are very beneficial to the whole ecosystem,” Hendricks said. He acknowledged that once you get beyond R&D and start looking at trade policies and the dreaded Entity List, “You’ll start to see some differences of opinion on how that should go and what the policies of the United States government should be.”

He said that if Western governments became more active in providing funding and other financial-/market-type tools, “It certainly helps a supplier that is competing aggressively for 5G contracts.”

Asked how he explains such a nuanced issue to lawmakers, Hendricks said the key is to focus in on what precise problem an individual policymaker is trying to solve–is it Huawei’s market dominance, is it supply chain diversification, is it U.S. 5G leadership. And, if it’s the former, what constitutes leadership–is it productivity increases as a function of 5G, is it quality of 5G service or is it U.S. companies making the most money off of 5G?

He said of joining the coalition, “For us the value is maybe now they’ll get a full picture. From our point of view, we try to help them understand that we do a lot in the United States. We have the largest employment base of any vendor with 10,000-plus and Bell Labs. We are very American in terms of we have all this innovation in America. I think O-RAN will certainly create new opportunities.”

Hendricks, a former Senate staffer, did note that this type of office-to-office retail effort is necessary to ensure that repetition of the us vs. them narrative doesn’t crystallize. He recalled an Ansel Adams quote: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”


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