Nokia pauses O-RAN Alliance work

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Nokia said its commitment to ORAN and the O-RAN Alliance remains strong. (Getty Images)

Nokia has put technical work with the O-RAN Alliance on hold over concerns that some contributors in the group have ties to China and have landed on the U.S. entity list.

Politico first reported the pause on Friday. 

In an emailed response to Fierce, a Nokia spokesperson said: “Nokia’s commitment to ORAN and the O-RAN Alliance, of which we were the first major vendor to join, remains strong. At this stage we are simply pausing technical activity with the Alliance as some participants have been added to the U.S. entities list, and it is prudent for us to allow the Alliance time to analyze and come to a resolution.”

In a reply to Fierce the O-RAN Alliance stated: "The O-RAN ALLIANCE is aware of concerns regarding participants that may be subject to U.S. export regulations, and is working with O-RAN participants to ensure compliance with U.S. law."

The O-RAN Alliance is the organization that defines and creates specifications for open interfaces and functions used in open radio access network architecture. It counts 29 operators globally among members, with a broad group of vendor contributors. Founding operator members include AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange.

O-RAN is specific to the organization-defined standards, while open RAN is a more general term. O-RAN specifications are used in conjunction or on top of the global cellular standards-setting body 3GPP for 4G and 5G standards.

RELATED: Not all open RAN is the same — Industry Voices: Pongratz

Among large traditional vendors Nokia has been most vocal about embracing open RAN and delivering gear that is compliant with O-RAN-defined interfaces. Ericsson also is a member of the O-RAN Alliance.

Politico, citing unnamed industry officials, reported that the decision was likely because of a high risk of penalties from the U.S. for working with companies that are restricted. According to the report, the three Chinese companies in the O-RAN Alliance that have been restricted by the U.S. because of security threats stemming from close ties to the Chinese military include Kindroid, Phytium and Inspur.

Huawei is a major RAN vendor that was blacklisted with placement on the U.S. Commerce Department’s Entity List back in 2019, but the Chinese vendor is not part of the O-RAN Alliance. However, several countries have barred the use of Huawei gear in 5G networks, including the U.S. which has cited risks to national security and campaigned for allies to also exclude the vendor.

RELATED: U.K. sets timeline for Huawei ban, embraces open RAN

Major operators around the globe are interested in open RAN, including Europe where T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, and Vodafone committed to the implementation and deployment of open RAN solutions earlier this year.

Part of the appeal and promise of open RAN is the ability to mix and match equipment and software from different vendors and avoid supplier lock-in of a few large suppliers, while operators also look for alternatives to Huawei and ZTE. Open RAN has spurred an ecosystem of newer and smaller entrants focused on specific interoperable solutions for 4G and 5G, and the approach has gained interest from U.S. lawmakers and regulators.

RELATED: Nokia’s mobile network head ready to face open RAN competition

In the U.S. Dish Network plans to deploy a new 5G network using open RAN architecture and Nokia is supplying components, including a containerized 5G core.

In a Monday research note, Strand Consulting, a firm based in Denmark that has been wary of open RAN technology over security concerns, said that by pausing technical work with the O-RAN Alliance, Nokia highlighted what it categorized as “an obvious issue.” The firm’s own research in December 2020 detailed 44 companies in the O-RAN Alliance it says are Chinese government-owned and/or military aligned.

“The ostensible purpose of open RAN, at least in the U.S., is to limit the presence of vulnerable Chinese government technology in networks. In fact, O-RAN Alliance members exchange specifications on open RAN every 6 months; this means that the 44 Chinese member companies, including those on the U.S. Entity List, get fresh open RAN code at least twice a year,” Strand Consulting wrote in a Monday note. “Given that Chinese state-owned companies comprise more than one-fifth of the membership of the O-RAN Alliance, it is essentially impossible to limit Chinese government influence in the organization. As such, non-Chinese companies may reconsider their membership in the O-RAN Alliance to reduce risk and improve security."

RELATED: Policy experts discuss open RAN security issues: Special Report

With the U.S. government’s interest in open RAN as alternatives to Huawei and ZTE (including the rip and replace mandate where smaller and rural service providers are starting to swap out the Chinese vendors’ gear in existing networks), Strand Consulting suggested there are a few ways forward when it comes to security and open RAN.

Aside from U.S. authorities finding no issue with participation in the O-RAN Alliance, which the company thinks unlikely, Strand Consulting suggests the O-RAN Alliance “voluntarily cleans up its act” or non-Chinese companies leave, or as a third scenario policymakers could wind up considering rules for using open RAN and “deem O-RAN Alliance developed technology vulnerable and therefore unacceptable in networks.”

On the flip side, in response to the news of Nokia suspending work the O-RAN Alliance, Eugina Jordan, VP of Marketing at open RAN vendor Parallel Wireless, expects the White House to issue licenses to let companies continue working together within key industry groups. 

"The O-RAN Alliance is working to create standards to enable open and intelligent RAN architecture. To address Nokia’s concern, we reasonably expect that the White House will clarify things and issue licenses to allow companies to sit on the same key industry groups as Huawei in the O-RAN Alliance, just like it has done in the past for the operators' association GSMA, standard-setting bodies like IEEE, ETSI and ISO and U.N. telecoms group ITU, without being in violation of the entity list rules.” Jordan said in a statement. 

Updated to add comment from Parallel Wireless. Further updated with response from O-RAN Alliance.