Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Monday, September 28, 2020
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Huawei Disputes U.S.-Backed Open 5G Push 

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Huawei Technologies, the 5G leader, is pushing back on concerted efforts to forge an alternative radio access network for the next generation of wireless technologies.

Western technology companies with a huge stake in the 5G rollout have coalesced around a so-called “Huawei alternative” called OpenRAN. The goal is to deploy software-defined 5G components like transceivers that would operate with a range of hardware. That approach would give network carriers an alternative source to the Chinese telecom equipment giant as well as other full-service 5G equipment vendors like Ericsson and Nokia.

Huawei and its semiconductor unit, HiSilicon, are the targets of stiff U.S. export controls designed to block access to western chip design and manufacturing tools. That effort is part of growing trade frictions between the U.S. and China, or what many observers describe as a “technology cold war.”

While OpenRAN backers tout the framework as an emerging standard that would help forge an 5G ecosystem, a Huawei executive disputed the immediate value of the western-backed framework.

Asked this week during an industry webinar whether OpenRAN would offer network carriers a technology alternative, the vice president of Huawei’s wireless and cloud unit vigorously challenged OpenRAN as a viable alternative to the Chinese telecom giant.

“There has been a lot of buzz around OpenRAN very recently, and its future benefits and values,” said Mohamed Madkour. “OpenRAN is just a different radio base station implementation method. It is definitely not a standard—it is not a new standard, whatsoever.”

The mobile broadband standard for radio access networks through successive generations of wireless technology is called 3GPP, for 3rd Generation Partnership Project. The umbrella organization develops protocols for mobile telecommunications.

In promoting its automated mobile broadband platform for 5G, Huawei is emphasizing open APIs and other components that Madkour asserted will help create an “open ecosystem” along with AI-driven network efficiencies. “We’re always ahead of implementing things that are customer-centric,” the Huawei executive said in defending the company’s layered approach focused on network elements spanning on-premises, cloud and edge computing.

Hence, Madkour asserted, OpenRAN’s “future values” remain unclear.

“We know that [OpenRAN] is not mature at the moment, and it will not solve any 5G problems right now,” he said. “With the current, legacy base station architecture, we can provide an open ecosystem and we can provide intelligence and automation.”

The debate over a seemingly obscure network standard illustrates the stakes involved in the 5G rollout. The Defense Department, which considers 5G a strategic technology, is backing development projects, according to the Washington Post.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is currently developing a U.S. strategy for deploying a “secure 5G” network that would exclude Huawei gear. (Washington alleges Huawei has ties to the Chinese military.)

Those efforts have fueled the formation of industry groups like the OpenRAN Policy Coalition that includes key western telecom carriers, cloud providers, network equipment vendors and chipmakers. The group’s goal is adoption of OpenRAN to “spur competition and expand the supply chain for advanced wireless technologies, including 5G.”

In recent comments, the group advocated “urgent policy actions to advance open and interoperable [radio access network technology] in a manner that promotes flexibility in the near-term and innovation and market diversity over the long-term.”

Key 5G components are emerging to compete with Huawei. Analog Devices Inc. and Intel announced a 5G wireless partnership this week that combines ADI’s digital front-end transceiver with Intel’s Arria 10 FPGAs. RF front-end capabilities are seen as critical for competing with Huawei and other leading 5G vendors.

As for OpenRAN’s prospects, wireless industry veterans said the approach is still in its formative stage. “It needs some time to work itself out, but I think it’s one of the ways we solve how do you get 5G deployed” in the U.S., said Michael Hogan, a senior executive at GlobalFoundries and a wireless industry veteran.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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