Huawei maintains seat at standards table despite geopolitical woes

BARCELONA, Spain—While Huawei continues to defend itself against accusations tied to national security concerns, there’s at least one segment of the industry that’s not slamming doors on the Chinese vendor.

Huawei is a member of the 3GPP, where standards are written for 5G. Occasionally, reports surface that it’s contributing more than its fair share to the process—skewing the final specs in its favor. But Adrian Scrase, chief technology officer of Operations at ETSI, said not only is Huawei a member, it has every right to contribute.

As a standards activity, the process of writing specifications for 5G cannot be geopolitical, he said.

“We are a technical standards-writing community and geopolitics can play no role in there, otherwise we’re in real trouble if we let politics or trade discussions start to dominate standards writing,” he told FierceWirelessTech on the sidelines of Mobile World Congress 2019. “Our ambition is to capture in our standards the very best technical solutions that are best for the marketplace, irrespective of where those proposals come from.”

As for how much Huawei contributes to or dominates the discussions about 5G, Scrase said it’s the broader community’s choice whether they accept contributions based on the technical merit.

Historically speaking, geopolitics move very quickly, after all. One month, one country will be out of favor and the next month it could be another country. By the time it comes time to deploy a standard, there could be another regime in play with other countries on the black list, he said.

“That’s why you really can’t let geopolitics get involved in standards writing,” he said.

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ETSI is a founding partner of 3GPP, which is 20 years old. ETSI is 30 years old, so “we’ve got many years of working with political backdrops,” he said. “We’ve always had this very strict mentality of neutrality when it comes to origin of ideas. The only thing we insist is that we understand the providence of the intellectual property and that the licenses will be available on reasonable terms. We can’t let politics interfere with standards.”

Part of the reason for all the concern around Huawei is the fact the industry is developing the next generation of wireless technology. 5G is unlike previous generations for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is intended to be much more relevant for myriad industries, which also has an impact on how the standards develop.

Scrase said he thought the number of members in the standards-writing process would have peaked a couple years ago or so, when it was around 400 members, but it’s now up to 640 member companies involved in the project, which means a lot more people. Reaching consensus has to take in account all of these growing number of views, which can add time to the standards decision-making process.

“If you’re trying to agree in a room with 10 people, it’s easier to agree than if it’s a room full of 640 companies,” he said. “It’s becoming a very large and all-embracing community, but that means making decisions can take a little longer.”

Several years ago, 3GPP was heavily dominated by telco players, but more recently, “what we’re seeing is significant input from non-traditional sectors,” such as broadcasting, automotive, agriculture, maritime, health and more. Initially, it was a challenge to get engagement from different industry sectors—“we spoke different languages,” he said—but that’s all changed significantly. Now these industries are bringing clear requirements of what they would like to see. 

That sentiment was echoed by Durga Malladi, SVP and general manager of 4G/5G, Qualcomm Technologies, during a FierceWireless “Making 5G Ubiquitous” panel at MWC on Tuesday.

If you were to walk into any kind of standards meeting, such as 3GPP, “you would be surprised to see a diverse set of industrial partners now attending those meetings,” including the automotive and manufacturing industries, Malladi said. “There’s all sorts of companies and entities that are now attending those meetings. It’s really amazing to see all these industries embracing the technology, providing input into it and saying, ‘OK, you know what, we have a seat at the table.’”

The bulk of products displayed at Mobile World Congress 2019 were based on the September 2018 version of the 5G standard. Last year, 3GPP decided to delay Release 16, also known as Phase 2 of the 5G standards, which puts the final version due March 2020. There’s a possibility that it could slip even further, Scrase said.

“There’s quite a lot in Release 16 and it’s a matter of how much you want to complete before you freeze the release or do we let certain things drop out of that release and come in Release 17, and that’s going to be an ongoing debate throughout the year,” he said. “It’s a matter of how much work can we really technically get completed in time or how long do you wait until it’s completed,” so it can be a time-dependent or a content-dependent release, he noted.

“There’s quite a long list of things in Release 16 and it’s a matter of taste then. If the one thing you want is not included, you’re going to be saying, ‘you need to wait.’ But if you’ve got everything you want completed, you’re going to be saying, ‘we need to freeze this release right now,’" he said. "That’s where the decision-making takes place in 3GPP, and that will be an interesting debate to follow through this year."