Nokia’s pause sends jolt through O-RAN community

Following news earlier this week that Nokia is pausing technical work within the O-RAN Alliance, stakeholders and observers shared different views on potential impacts to the industry body and open RAN progress.

Nokia confirmed the suspension of work, first reported by Politico, on Monday – but maintained its commitment to open RAN and the O-RAN Alliance remains strong.

RELATED: Nokia pauses O-RAN Alliance work

At issue are three Chinese companies that are contributing members (Kindroid, Phytium and Inspur) and have come under restrictions from the U.S., including placement on the Commerce Department’s Entity List over security risks stemming from ties to the Chinese government.

The risk of incurring potential U.S. penalties from working with restricted companies appears to have led Nokia to hold off work until or if the issue is resolved.

Nokia was the first major vendor to join and has been a leading contributor to the O-RAN Alliance, which defines and creates specifications for open interfaces and functions adopted for open RAN architectures. O-RAN specifications are used in conjunction or on top of the global cellular standards-setting body 3GPP for 4G and 5G standards.

So are other companies going to follow suit and will this impact progress for the O-RAN Alliance or the open RAN ecosystem?

Ed Gubbins, principal analyst at GlobalData, expects open RAN players to watch very closely as to whether other vendors also choose to pause work.

“As a major RAN vendor and proponent of Open RAN, Nokia wields a lot of influence in this area,” Gubbins said via email. “And because the U.S. is a very important market for Nokia, the company is well-incentivized to be responsive to the concerns of the U.S. government.”

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

Nokia rival Ericsson, a leading RAN vendor, is also part of the O-RAN Alliance but has been arguably less invested in or vocal about open RAN. Ericsson introduced cloud-native 5G products, but as an incumbent supplier like Nokia, stands to face competition from open RAN as newer entrants join the fray.

In a response to questions from FierceWireless, the Swedish vendor provided a statement that warned the problem could hold up progress for the O-RAN Alliance.

"We operate according to strict controls recognizing that companies are added to and removed from the Entity List on a regular basis," an Ericsson spokesperson stated. “The current situation may hamper progress within the O-RAN Alliance and we are keen to see the situation resolved as quickly as possible."

RELATED: Ericsson CEO pegs O-RAN as key for 6G

Gubbins also feels the situation could pump the breaks on O-RAN short-term but noted there’s likely immediate efforts within the group to resolve it.

“I have no doubt that the Alliance and its members are, and will be, working to quickly resolve this issue,” Gubbins told Fierce. “It is very possible that the Alliance's work could slow down until this is sorted out.”

Removing members from the O-RAN Alliance who are on the U.S. Entity List is one solution Gubbins assumes is on the table, noting it could fix the immediate problem.

One company that’s been making inroads in the open RAN space is Mavenir. The Texas-based software vendor responded to an inquiry from Fierce, with the stance that contributing to specifications within an industry body doesn’t pose the same kind of threat as purchasing gear from vendors deemed security risks.

RELATED: Mavenir swaps out Triangle’s Huawei gear for open RAN

“We’re confident companies from all over the world, including the U.S., will continue to regularly contribute to global standards organizations like the O-RAN Alliance,” Mavenir stated. “We strongly believe that doing so is consistent with the U.S. government’s intent and objectives, and we understand that policymakers are in the process of clarifying that American suppliers can and should keep contributing to the Alliance, 3GPP and other standards and similar bodies. Unlike the actual purchase of products from untrusted vendors, a company’s participation in the standards process does not represent a security threat.”

The company also suggested that incumbents could be stalling the Open RAN process.

“In contrast to the vendor proprietary protocol interfaces used in networks today, open standards provide for better network security and increased competition. We hope Open RAN detractors and those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo stop seeking opportunities to delay this important work,” Mavenir continued.

Still, while Gubbins thinks the Nokia development could delay progress, he’s skeptical that there’s a serious threat to the O-RAN Alliance or open RAN movement long-term.

“The U.S. government has expressed plenty of optimism around the prospects for O-RAN to offer alternatives to the China-based vendors that have raised security concerns,” he said. “So the notion of O-RAN being too closely associated with China-based vendors would be a stretch.”

RELATED: FCC takes up formal discussion on open RAN

He added that while there are more Chinese companies than the three in question within the Alliance’s ranks – the open RAN vendor ecosystem is widely distributed across diverse geographies such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Europe, India and the U.S.

The Alliance’s 29 operator members include China Mobile and China Unicom. Vendor Huawei, which has remained in U.S. crosshairs, is not part of the group though fellow China-based vendor ZTE is.

In the U.S. smaller and rural providers are undertaking the mandated process of removing and replacing existing Huawei and ZTE network gear deemed risky by the government.

To address Nokia’s concern, Parallel Wireless VP Eugina Jordan has said the open RAN vendor “reasonably expects 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.”

Denmark-based Strand Consulti previously raised flags over the membership in the O-RAN Alliance due to China-related security risks, and founder John Strand took issue with Jordan’s comment. Strand said via email that he doesn’t believe the White House will issue licenses to continue working together in key industry groups and asserts the O-RAN Alliance is not comparable to standard-setting bodies like IEEE, ETSI and ISO and U.N. telecoms group ITU.

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

Meanwhile, Juniper, a contributor in the O-RAN Alliance (including six working groups and chair and co-chair of the slicing and use-case task groups), made an announcement Wednesday that it’s deepening commitment to Open RAN innovation through a joint initiative with Intel. That includes a Juniper RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) and Intel FlexRAN platform pre-integrated and pre-validated, collaborative R&D work between the companies for RIC platform-specific apps, and joint customer testbeds.

Gubbins pointed to the Juniper news as one possible sign that the open RAN ecosystem and market “are not overly spooked” by Nokia’s pause.

In response to Fierce, Juniper said it’s evaluating participation in the O-RAN Alliance.

“We are aware of the US government’s inclusion of O-RAN Alliance members on the Entity List and are continuing to evaluate our participation to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations,” a Juniper spokesperson stated.