Thursday, November 11, 2021

Unease growing in Europe over 'America First' agenda behind O-RAN initiative: telecommunications infrastructure treated as geopolitical football

Yesterday was the first of two days of a conference organized by the European University Institute's Florence School of Regulation on Transatlantic Relationships in Innovation Policies: Converging Agendas?

I tuned in because "IP and standard-setting" (with a focus on 5G) were announced as key topics. However, that first day, apart from a keynote by Qualcomm's Alex Rogers (in which he called out Apple on taxing app developers while complaining about SEP royalties), was largely about technology-related trade policy in general, and the O-RAN initiative (for modularizing telecommunications network infrastructure) was actually the key topic.

About two months ago I discussed the implications of O-RAN for patent licensing and litigation. Since then, I've seen two articles in German media that reflect European skepticism of OpenRAN:

  1. Two weeks ago, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an opinion piece on O-RAN by Professor Torsten Gerpott, who teaches strategic and telecommunications management at a German university. He does not consider subsidies for O-RAN projects a wise use of German taxpayers' money as it does nothing to increase the country's digital sovereignty. In Professor Gerpott's opinion, Open RAN is more of a geopolitical football than a solid technological concept. To that expert it's pretty clear that open interfaces do not make an entire network infrastructure open: if you connect multiple black boxes over open standards, you need more energy and still depend on those black boxes--and on a systems integrator, which is a similar dependency as a single-vendor relationship. In other words, it's not as "open" as the name suggests, and it's certainly not the same as relying on 100% open-source modules.

    Professor Gerpott mentions the absence of evidence that "open" network concepts have enabled major new entrants to compete in infrastructure markets. But in any event, he says, breaking up network infrastructure with O-RAN is "not necessarily desirable from an EU point of view as two European vendors--Ericsson and Nokia--have a strong market position." Instead, the O-RAN architecture would benefit U.S: tech companies and platform operators that do not play a major role in the current RAN market.

    The op-ed concludes that O-RAN is not a "(r)evolutionary network architecture driven by technical ideas" but rather "a geopolitical approach in order to shut out Chinese vendors and strengthen U.S. tech companies." The headline of that article warns against "false hopes" connected to Open RAN.

  2. Just two days ago German tech news website Golem reported on statements by Vodafone's chief technology officer, who said Vodafone did not want to "prematurely commit" to Open RAN. Vodafone is actually running some Open RAN trials in a few European countries, but is concened about "losing our two major vendors" Nokia and Ericsson. The CTO said Vodafone "does not want to shift the emphasis to North America[n vendors]."

    A Nokia executive who spoke at the same event (hosted by the German ministry in charge of infrastructure) said that "despite lots of progress a lot remains to be done" concerning O-RAN, as some technical hurdles have yet to be overcome.

Against the background provided by those two articles, some of what I heard yesterday at that transatlantic trade policy conference was easier to understand:

  • The European Commission's head of unit for trade relationships with the USA and Canada, Matthias Jørgensen, didn't specifically mention O-RAN. He did, however, note that the U.S., Europe and other major players on the global stage all want digital sovereignty (yet also aspire to be world market leaders). And he noted different perspective on, for instance, platform regulation, though I think those differences may be greater between the executive governments on both sides of the pond than between lawmakers (for example, the "Open App Markets Act" in the U.S. won't necessarily be weaker than the EU's Digital Markets Act).

    Mr. Jørgensen noted that the EU had a better relationship with the Biden Administration than its predecessors, but that "America First" was still the U.S. approach to trade policy.

    I find it hard to see how the EU would embrace O-RAN, a Trumpian initiative that the Biden Administration appears to be supportive of, given the damage it might do to Ericsson and Nokia only to create opportunities for certain U.S. hardware makers and cloud operators like Amazon (which also had a speaker at that conference).

    Also, the European Commission is known to be involved with O-RAN at the ETSI level, and it is the Commission's responsibility to consider all implications of a proposal like O-RAN, including the security aspects of relying on (non-European) cloud service providers.

  • Deutsche Telekom's EU affairs VP Roland Doll sounded a bit like Vodafone's CTO in the Golem article I mentioned further above. It looks like Deutsche Telekom, too, would want to ensure that European vendors continue to be major players in the telecommunications infrastructure market. Deutsche Telekom is concerned that the only major cloud service providers in the world are American (Amazon, Microsoft, Google), and Europe cannot compete in that field.

It's easier to see why Europe isn't enthusiastic about O-RAN than to argue that Europe stands a lot to gain from it. As long as that is the situation, there is even a risk of a split, with different world regions potentially developing their own standards and relying on their own vendors.

This could have profound implications, ultimately even for cellular standards, so I'm going to keep an eye on developments related to O-RAN.

Share with other professionals via LinkedIn: